Subject: AFP: People-smuggling suspected in case of East Timor Sri Lankans

Agence France Presse

August 2, 2002 Friday

People-smuggling suspected in case of East Timor Sri Lankans


East Timor's foreign minister said Friday he suspected 56 Sri Lankans anchored in a boat off the new nation were part of a people-smuggling operation.

Jose Ramos-Horta told AFP the Sri Lankans, who have been anchored in Dili harbour since Sunday, will be allowed to disembark so that the UN refugee agency can determine their status.

The boat arrived in an apparent attempt to resupply during a journey to New Zealand.

"If they are found to be involved in people-smuggling the boat will be confiscated, the captain will be detained and they will be deported," Ramos-Horta said from East Timor.

The case is the first of its kind for the nation which became independent on May 20.

"East Timor acted within its responsibility. We could not allow the boat to continue. That would be to condone people-smuggling," Ramos-Horta said.

Late Friday afternoon the Sri Lankans had still not disembarked despite the agreement, because East Timor Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri had asked for a delay until his return from the Australian city of Darwin, Ramos-Horta said.

The disembarkation is expected to proceed once Alkatiri returns.

"We are asking the government to please make this happen today because we are concerned for their well-being," said Jake Morland, of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

He said the 14-metre (46-foot) fibreglass vessel is extremely crowded and until the occupants reach land, his agency will not be able properly to assess their health.

Originally anchored about 200 metres (700 feet) offshore, the boat has moved very close to the beach.

Ramos-Horta said East Timorese authorities have information the Sri Lankans are from the majority Sinhalese community, not the minority Tamil community which has been devastated by a long-running war for independence.

He said authorities also learned two people had arrived in East Timor before the boat to buy fuel for it.

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