Australia, with tight gun curbs, announces new firearms amnesty

Australia's Minister for Justice, Michael Keenan speaks during an interview with Reuters in Bangkok, Thailand, January 23, 2016. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia on Friday announced a gun amnesty for next year after a criminal intelligence report estimated there were 260,000 illegal firearms in the country.

Australia introduced tight curbs on gun ownership after the massacre of 35 people by a lone gunman in and around a cafe at a former prison colony in Tasmania in 1996.

The country has had no mass shootings since and has been held up by many abroad as an example of the need for tight controls.

The amnesty comes amid a debate over gun laws that has opened up a rift in the ruling Liberal Party, pitting Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull against the man he overthrew ahead of a key party gathering this weekend.

“The amnesty will provide an opportunity for those individuals who, for whatever reason are in possession of an unregistered firearm, to hand it in without fear of being prosecuted,” Justice Minister Michael Keenan told reporters in Melbourne.

“While Australia has some of the strongest firearm controls in the world, illicit firearms remain the weapon of choice for criminals.”

Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Nick Macfie