INDONESIA will force 240 Sri Lankan asylum-seekers into immigration detention by the end of next week, at gunpoint if necessary, after admitting it has concerns there are former Tamil Tigers militants among the group. As the [Australian] opposition stepped up its attack on the government over its decision to bring to Australia four Tamils deemed a security risk by ASIO, Indonesian immigration officials said they suspected the three-month standoff at the port of Merak was being directed by Tamil militants on the boat.

Indonesia’s action is being discussed ahead of a visit to Jakarta by Australia’s ambassador for people-smuggling issues, Peter Woolcott, to talk about how the two countries will in future treat a crisis such as that in Merak. The Sri Lankan government claims to have identified former Tigers members aboard the Merak boat, based on press photos.

Senior decision-makers will meet tomorrow to determine whether the Sri Lankans are to be sent to the Australian-funded detention centre in Tanjung Pinang, where the 78 Tamils from the Oceanic Viking were processed, or to rented accommodation closer to Jakarta. The 240 refugees have refused to leave their 30m wooden cargo boat, the Jaya Lestari, since a request by Australia in October that the Indonesian navy intercept them on their way to Christmas Island.

Harry Purwanto, the most senior immigration official in Banten province where the asylum-seekers are holed up, confirmed that Indonesia believed the standoff was due to pressure from people on board with links to the defeated rebel Tigers movement. “Many of them want to get off, but a small number of militants don’t want to, and many of the others are frightened because this small group are Tamil Tigers, according to military intelligence,” Mr Purwanto said. The Australian understands officials in Canberra have noted the level of discipline apparent on the Merak boat.

A senior Indonesia navy official said yesterday former militants were believed to be aboard the boat. “It’s thought to be the case, and if you ask me, I think it’s definitely likely — it’s logical that, in a group like this that wants to leave (Sri Lanka), there would be either family members or (Tigers),” the source said. Mr Purwanto said officials from immigration and foreign affairs would meet tomorrow to decide what to do. “We are trying to resolve the issue this month,” he said. “This is our nation, so why can’t we (use force) in the name of our sovereignty? After all, this has all only happened because we followed an Australian request.”

Sanjeev “Alex” Kuhendrarajah, a spokesman for those on board, said if there were former fighters on the Jaya Lestari, “they should have more credibility in their request for asylum than even a regular refugee because they really are fleeing for their lives”.

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