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Asylum seekers stranded as Australia and SL attempt to resolve issue

world Updated: Nov 09, 2009 22:21 IST
Sutirtho Patranobis
Sutirtho Patranobis
Hindustan Times
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Sri Lanka will cooperate with Australia to investigate, track down and bring to justice the masterminds who are involved in-migrant smuggling, said President Mahinda Rajapaksa during his meeting with the visiting Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith. Smith's visit comes in the wake of the government's attempt to reach an agreement over the destiny of 78 asylum seekers onboard an Australian customs ship, the Oceanic Viking.

Agencies reported Oceanic Viking, which is still in Indonesian waters, counts the fourth week. Sri Lankans are refusing to board off to avoid being taken to Indonesia. An Australian High Commission spokesperson told HT that Smith's day visit was ``unscheduled'' and purely to resolve the issue of the asylum seekers.

Rajapaksa, according to a statement from the President's office, added that the government is concerned about people who are being victimised and trafficked by criminal elements. He stressed that the government will leave no room for criminals to damage the good image of Sri Lanka by false accusations of migrants being subject to various harassments. He further said that the government is ready to take back those who tried to migrate. A Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the two countries concerning legal cooperation against the smuggling of migrants.

"I will reiterate Australia's view that, having won the war, Sri Lanka now needs to win the peace through political reform and reconciliation," Smith, who was the first Australian foreign minister to visit since 2003, said in a statement prior to his departure to Sri Lanka, according to a DPA report.

For more than two weeks, 78 Sri Lankans have been refusing to disembark from an Australian Customs vessel moored off Indonesia's Bintan Island and demanding that the Oceanic Viking take them to Australia.

At Jakarta's request, the asylum seekers were rescued in international waters three weeks ago and by rights should disembark in Indonesia, agency reports said.

Canberra wants them to leave the ship for internment in an Australian-funded immigration detention centre at Tanjung Pinang on Bintan Island near Singapore. Indonesia, which is prepared to take them in for processing, has ruled out the use of force to get them off the Australian ship.

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