Sri Lanka arrests 67 people suspected of traveling to Australia

Sri Lanka’s navy says it has detained 67 people it believes were attempting to travel to Australia illegally by sea

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — The Sri Lanka Navy said Tuesday it has detained 67 people it believes were attempting to travel to Australia illegally by sea.

The navy said in a statement that 12 men were initially arrested near the port city of Trincomalee, 260 kilometers (160 miles) northeast of the capital Colombo, on Monday and, following their questioning, intercepted 55 others who were traveling in a fishing vessel. The people were between 3 and 53 years old, and five of them are believed to be part of a human smuggling ring.

Navy spokeswoman Indika de Silva said while their destination is not yet clear, it is believed they were headed for Australia.

Police were still determining the motivation for the illegal travel, de Silva said, but Sri Lankans had traveled illegally to Australia and other developed nations over the years for economic and political reasons.

Australian media reported on Tuesday that officials turned 15 people back to Sri Lanka on Saturday after they were traveling in a boat near Christmas Island.

Sri Lanka is facing its worst economic crisis in recent memory due to shortages of basic necessities ranging from food, cooking gas, medicines and fuel to toilet paper and matches. People have been forced to stand in long lines to buy their essentials in recent months, and many have returned empty-handed.

The island nation has defaulted on its external debt for the first time after announcing last month that it would suspend payments on $7 billion of foreign debt maturing this year, with nearly $25 billion out of a total of $51 billion by 2026 US dollars are due.

The country’s new prime minister said last week petrol supplies were running out by the last day, exacerbating commuter problems and lengthening lines. But deliveries of petrol, paid for through an Indian credit line, began arriving over the weekend.

Energy and Energy Minister Kanchana Wijesekera told reporters on Tuesday the Cabinet had given him permission to allocate an additional $500 million line of credit from India, on top of the already sanctioned total of $700 million in credit lines work to buy fuel.

The economic crisis in Sri Lanka has sparked a political crisis with protesters occupying the entrance to the President’s office for more than 40 days, demanding the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Attacks by government supporters on peaceful protesters sparked nationwide unrest that killed nine people, including one MP, and wounded 200. Houses and property of incumbent ministers and government supporters were burned. Violence nearly crushed the Rajapaksa dynasty after the president’s brother Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned as prime minister amid the violence.

Two other siblings and a nephew resigned from their cabinet posts in early April, and Gotabaya Rajapaksa himself faces the prospect of having his powers curtailed. New Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, tasked with reviving the economy, is working on amending the constitution to water down the president’s powers and strengthen Parliament.

The change was discussed by Cabinet on Monday and sent to party leaders in Parliament for comment.

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