SANGATTE, France -- Hundreds of refugees living in an overcrowded Red Cross center on the English Channel coast gathered Christmas evening to plot their risky escape to Britain.
Some ate dinner two or three times to store up energy for the journey on foot through the 31-mile Channel tunnel.
The attempted mass exodus ended Wednesday with clouds of tear gas as police dispersed some refugees and hunted down others in the tunnel.
The incident highlighted the fate of some 1,300 Iraqi Kurds, Afghans, Iranians and other refugees holed up indefinitely in this northern French village.
In more than a dozen interviews, refugees explained their plan and vowed to continue trying to reach Britain, drawn there by its relatively liberal asylum laws and dreams of new homes and jobs.
In all, about 550 refugees from the Red Cross center attempted the crossing in two waves beginning Tuesday night. Such a large-scale attempt is rare, but not unprecedented. The refugees were trying to take advantage of the reduced traffic on Christmas Day.
"We decided to form two groups -- A and B," Ahmed, a 23-year-old Afghan refugee, told The Associated Press on Wednesday, speaking in Farsi. "We thought we could cross all together by foot. We had almost managed, but at the very end the police stopped us."
Another Afghan refugee, Zia, said the plan was to launch the assault just after dinnertime. "Some of us ate dinner two or three times, just to have enough energy to cross," the 24-year-old said. Like other refugees, Ali did not want to provide his last name because of his illegal status.
The melee began at 9:15 p.m. Tuesday, when some 150 refugees broke through electronic barriers. Overwhelmed security forces called in French police, who tracked them down and arrested 129 of them. The refugees had managed to get one-quarter of the way through the tunnel.
"We ran and walked for three hours inside the tunnel," said Ali, an Iraqi Kurd, who said he found it difficult to breathe inside.
Just before 1 a.m. Wednesday, a new group of about 400 tried to storm the same entrance. Police used tear gas to repel them.
Every night, dozens of refugees who live in mobile homes and tents here attempt the dangerous crossing, trying either to jump on trains or navigate the tunnel on foot. Most are caught, but others make it through.
Both Eurotunnel and the Red Cross accused the refugees of staging a media event.
"This is a well-constructed media operation," said Alain Bertrand, an executive with Eurotunnel. "They knew very well that they would never make it to England," he told France-Info radio.
The Sangatte center, set up in an unused Eurotunnel building in 1999, was intended to house 700 refugees but now holds about 1,300.
Refugees the world over are eager to go to Britain, regarded as having more liberal asylum laws. For some, the journey ends in tragedy. In June 2000, 58 Chinese refugees were found suffocated in the back of a tomato truck in the English Channel port of Dover.
About 50 refugees remained in custody on Wednesday evening, police said.
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