Sifting boat people evidence for LTTE links

Police are checking for terrorist connections in the recently aborted human smuggling operation involving 169 Australia-bound asylum seekers. Asif Fuard reports

A group of 169 Sri Lankans who were on their way to Australia as asylum seekers had their grand plan wrecked when the vessels they were travelling in were seized by the Sri Lankan authorities even before they had left Sri Lanka’s territorial waters.

Travelling in four boats, the 169 illegal boat people – 163 Tamils and six Sinhalese –were arrested in a joint surveillance operation conducted by the Sri Lanka Navy and the Sri Lanka Air Force, assisted by the Police. The illegal immigrants were brought to the Southern Naval Command Headquarters and then handed over to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID). They are now being held at a camp in Boosa, Galle.

The asylum seekers, who had paid between Rs. 600,000 and one million each to pay their passage to Australia, were carrying enough food, drinking water, fuel and other essentials to last them for their two-week sea voyage. The four boats were detected off the southern coast of Sri Lanka. According to the police, they were carrying various foreign currencies, including Australian and US dollars, and lists of contacts living in Australia.

Acting on intelligence received from the police, the Navy intensified patrolling in the area on Monday and Tuesday, while the Air Force sent out two reconnaissance planes. The Navy intercepted the boats, using information from the Air Force.

According to the police, 52 of the boat people were found to be in poor physical condition and were given emergency medical attention.

A CID source told the Sunday Times that preliminary investigations have revealed that a major portion of the money paid by the asylum seekers has been pocketed by the owner of the four vessels. The owner is a Wennappuwa-based businessman who possesses a fleet of vessels used for deep-sea fishing. The businessman, meanwhile, has disappeared.

“There are others involved,” the CID source said. “They were on the boats at the time of the arrests. They are fishermen by profession and they have experience navigating ocean-going vessels over long distances. They told the police that the deal was that they would keep the balance money as their commission. The plan was that they would abandon ship once the vessels had reached a certain spot off the coast of Australia.”

Navy spokesperson, Captain Athula Senarath, told the Sunday Times that separate investigations are under way to ascertain whether there is an LTTE connection in the human smuggling racket. “We are looking for both LTTE links and links with international pirates,” he said.

Meanwhile, intelligence organisations are on the lookout for a person identified as Ravi Shankar Kanagarajah, alias Shangil, who is wanted in connection with scams relating to human trafficking, arms and contraband.

Ravi Shankar is the owner of the vessel MV Ocean Lady, also known as the Princess Eashwary, a floating warehouse that was used extensively by the LTTE’s overseas network in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. The ship played a significant role in LTTE gunrunning and arms smuggling activities prior to the terrorist organisation’s military defeat in May 2009.In October 2009, the Canadian immigration authorities seized the MV Princess Eshwary when it entered Canadian waters with 76 illegal immigrants aboard. The ship had set out with its human cargo from a South Asian country.

Earlier this month, the Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith visited Sri Lanka to talk to the Sri Lankan authorities on ways to tackle the issue of illegal immigrants travelling between the two countries. During his meeting with Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama, the Australian official discussed the possibilities of returning illegal Sri Lankan immigrants to their homeland and cracking down on groups and individuals engaged in human trafficking.

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