Police forced refugees aboard at gunpoint

By Chris McCall, Neale Maynard
Courier Mail
25 OCT 2001

ARMED Indonesian police forcibly escorted boatpeople on to an overloaded fishing vessel which later sank and lost more than 350 lives.

Survivors quoted in three separate reports yesterday claimed that police -- who have denied involvement in refugee smuggling -- escorted them to the ill-fated vessel that sank on Friday.

Iraqi exile Dr Ihab Khazaal told The Courier-Mail survivors had spoken of how they were forced on to the dangerously overloaded boat at gunpoint.

And he warned they were threatening to kill themselves if they weren't quickly considered for asylum.

The claims came as Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirayuda announced his country would hold a summit on the immigration crisis and would invite Australia.

Prime Minister John Howard said neither he nor his advisers had yet received a formal invitation, but the Government would 'look at any proposal in an urgent and positive way'.

The Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock said Australia might consider taking some of the 44 asylum seekers who survived the disaster -- if they were genuine refugees and had close family members in Australia.

But he told ABC radio such a move had to be weighed up against the possibility that it encouraged others 'to embark on voyages which are equally as hazardous'.

He also said Australia would take 40 other Afghan and Iraqi boatpeople assessed as 'genuine' refugees by United Nations officers at camps in Indonesia.

Mr Ruddock also revealed Australia knew the identity of the Egyptian people smuggler behind the latest tragedy and had given his name to the authorities in Indonesia. It is believed he could have collected at least $1 million from his desperate human cargo.

The 44 survivors of the tragedy said they paid up to $8000 each for passage on the overcrowded 19m boat.

The Australian Federal Police are investigating the man, named as Egyptian-born Abu Quessai.

Australia had offered to extradite people smugglers and prosecute them here.

International Organisation for Migration spokesman Richard Danziger said there seemed to be a 'real will' among Indonesian authorities to pursue the people smugglers.

On the political front, Mr Howard, who on Tuesday accused Opposition Leader Kim Beazley of trying to make political mileage out of the tragedy, yesterday remained embroiled in a war of words with his opponent.

Mr Beazley accused Mr Howard of inflaming the debate to avoid domestic issues.

photo caption: ANGUISH . . . Zhra, Eman and Fatimah Alazami, who drowned when a fishing vessel carrying boatpeople sank in Indonesian waters on Friday, are mourned by their mother Sondos Ismail, below left, who was on the boat with them and in Sydney by their father Achmed Alazami, right, with friend Jafar Albakal

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