Sri Lanka arrests asylum seekers sent from Australia

Sri Lankan police arrested a group of asylum seekers deported by Canberra Saturday after they allegedly hijacked a fishing vessel to reach Australian shores, with some facing charges of attempted murder.

Fifteen Sri Lankans were picked up by Australian authorities on Thursday north-west of the Cocos Islands in a boat apparently stolen from its owner in Sri Lankan waters two week ago, and Canberra sent 14 of them back on Saturday.

Sri Lankan police said the 14 people were arrested at the island’s international airport as they disembarked from an Australian government-chartered plane.

"The 14 suspects were… immediately handed over to the police," an official said, adding that they faced several charges including attempted murder, abduction and theft.

The officer who declined to be named said they were trying to secure arrest warrants against the crew of two other trawlers which went missing this month and believed to have been used for people smuggling to Australia.

Australia’s Immigration Minister Chris Bowen told reporters in Sydney that one member of the group who was not deported on Saturday would be returned in the coming days.

The minister said the deported Sri Lankans made "no claims for protection nor raised any issues that engaged Australia’s international obligations".

"They did not hold visas and consequently had no legal right to enter or remain in Australia," he said in a statement.

Sri Lanka sought help from Interpol to track down the trawler Thejan after it was apparently stolen by its own crew in a bid to illegally transport asylum-seekers to Australia.

A magistrate issued arrest warrants against the skipper and 13 others who staged the alleged hijacking to try to cover up the boat’s theft and use it in the highly lucrative people-smuggling business.

Two of the six crewmen were later found wounded and bobbing in the water off Sri Lanka’s southern coast. They gave conflicting accounts of the events and are being detained for questioning.

Sri Lankan authorities say they have detained more than 1,000 people trying to leave for Australia illegally this year.

In August, Australia announced it will send asylum-seekers offshore to the tiny Pacific state of Nauru and a Papua New Guinea island to deter boatpeople from attempting the sea voyage, which has cost hundreds of lives.

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