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September 23, 2017

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Australia returns Sri Lankans from 'hijacked' boat

SYDNEY -- A group of Sri Lankans who came to Australia on an allegedly hijacked fishing vessel have been returned home where some could face "serious charges," Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said Saturday.

Fifteen people were picked up by Australian authorities on Thursday northwest of the Cocos Islands in a boat that was thought to have been hijacked in Sri Lankan waters on Oct. 13, and 14 of them have been sent back.

"Of course, some of these people face serious charges in Sri Lanka," Bowen told reporters, referring to the alleged hijacking and theft of the fishing trawler.

"The (Australian) government took the view that it's appropriate that they face those charges and that the removal occur as soon as possible," he said.

Bowen, who said Australian and Sri Lankan officials had been in contact on the issue, said one of the group was not able to be returned on Saturday but authorities would consider his availability for removal in the coming days.

The minister said the Sri Lankans who were returned 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.

Police had told the magistrate the skipper stole the vessel from its owner before taking on board another 10 people in the suspected journey to Australia.

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

The pair initially told police the trawler had been attacked by about 40 suspected illegal immigrants carrying swords who arrived in four small boats and overpowered the crew.

Police said two other trawlers had also been reported missing off the island's southern region since Oct. 2 and they too could have been stolen for people-smuggling.

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

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