IN A move hailed as a breakthrough in the fight against crime in the territory, Taiwan has started sending wanted criminals back to Hongkong. The major policy change signals Taiwan's end as a safe haven for Hongkong villains with Taiwanese police launching a hunt for at least 12 men wanted in connection with crimes in Hongkong, and have already returned six people, including four this year. The Commissioner of Taiwan's Criminal Investigation Bureau (CIB), Mr Lu Yu-jiun, confirmed the policy change at the 15th Annual International Asian Organised Crime Conference in Las Vegas. He said the practice could also be extended to other countries in an attempt to end criticism that Taiwan had become a sanctuary for drug traffickers, fraudsters, gangsters, corrupt officials and murderers. The island state has long been regarded as a safe haven for Hongkong criminals, including the notorious Ma brothers, who fled the territory in the 1970s, and a former policeman Lui Lok, who sought refuge there in 1974. One of the Mas, Sik-yu, died in Taiwan last November, a fugitive from Hongkong justice. Many robberies and other violent crimes have gone unsolved in recent years, with police suspecting the culprits of having fled to Taiwan within hours. The island state has been seen as a prime centre for the disposal of jewellery and other goods stolen in Hongkong. Mr Lu told the Sunday Morning Post : ''Our relationship with the Royal Hongkong Police Force is very good, although it is not official. ''Six fugitives have been successfully repatriated to Hongkong, but we still have an average of 10 to 12 criminals hiding in Taiwan.'' Mr Lu said all the criminals were wanted for rape, robbery and murder and have appeared on Interpol's red notice, even though Taiwan is not a signatory to the agreement. Mr Lu said the policy change followed a relaxation in residency laws for Hongkong people settling in Taiwan, making it easier for criminals to enter Taipei. Hongkong Police Deputy Director of Crime, Mr Tsang Yam-pui, said while no official agreement had been signed, he was grateful for the return of the criminals. ''It is a goodwill gesture and we appreciate it very much. It is mutually beneficial that they do not provide shelter for those people.'' The Hongkong Government is cautious when discussing its relations with Taiwan for fear of upsetting China, especially concerning co-operation on crime, as mainland authorities have regularly returned criminals over the past year. The last person to be sent back from Taipei was a criminal called Ma Chin-yuan, wanted in Hongkong in connection with a bloody triad killing. Ma, allegedly a member of the Big Circle Gang, was involved in a fight along with five others in which a rival gang member was stabbed to death. He fled to Taiwan and Hongkong police placed a $100,000 reward on his head. Ma's brother, who also fled to Taiwan, is wanted for questioning for drug offences in Hongkong, and a Taiwan CIB spokesman said he and others would be arrested. ''There is no exception,'' he said. ''Whoever Hongkong asks for - we will give regardless.'' Fight Crime Committee chairman Mr Justein Wong Chun said he was aware of the arrangement, adding that it gave a strong warning to criminals that Taiwan was no longer a safe haven. Legislative Councillor Mr James To Kun-sun, who sits on the Omelco Security Panel, welcomed the informal agreement, but warned: ''The Hongkong Government must be very skilful and sensitive to this issue. ''But on the law enforcement side the mainland government, I think, understands any co-operation between places, communities or countries which is trying to combat crime. ''I do not think it will create any problem. Mainland China displays a very practical attitude when it comes to criminal co-operation. ''China already has a certain co-operation with the Taiwan Government, even if it is through informal channels. It exists through intelligence, at a very basic level, for example with illegal immigrants. ''I welcome this policy change. Hongkong is trying its best to liaise with other parts of the world and exchange intelligence.''