Officers held for boat role
By Don Greenlees - Jakarta correspondent
Weekend Australian
27 October 2001

TWO Indonesian policemen have been detained over allegations that police and people-smugglers forced asylum-seekers at gunpoint to stay on board a dilapidated boat that later sank on its way to Australia, drowning more than 350 men, women and children.

The two policemen, holding the rank of brigadier -- the equivalent of an Australian police sergeant -- were picked up for questioning yesterday after survivors of the shipwreck said that armed men refused to let some reluctant passengers go ashore.

'The police chief in Riau (in Sumatra) told me that two brigadiers were involved,' national police chief General Suroyo Bimantoro said following a meeting with President Megawati Sukarnoputri. But General Bimantoro maintained policemen working with the smugglers were only guarding the asylum-seekers and did not threaten them with weapons. Other international agencies have privately expressed scepticism about the claims of asylum-seekers which emerged only on the second day they gave media interviews to about their ordeal.

The Indonesian police have set up a team to hunt for the smugglers behind the doomed boat. Survivors and authorities have identified the principle organiser as a man calling himself Abu Quessai. He was assisted by two Iraqis and an Indonesian. The overloaded boat they organised sank on its way to Christmas Island on October 19. Of roughly 400 people on board, only 45 survived.

Although survivors allege a band of policemen was present during the boarding of the vessel in South Sumatra on October 18, sources say smugglers using South Sumatra as a departure point usually work with Indonesian marines.

But Indonesian police and analysts admit that in some parts of the country, corrupt police officers assist smugglers, offering protection and clearing the way for buses to ferry asylum-seekers to departure points.

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