Jakarta vows to wipe out people-smuggling syndicates
9 November 2001

JAKARTA, Nov 9 (AFP) - Indonesia's chief political and security minister vowed Friday to wipe out people-smuggling syndicates that use the country as a staging post for Middle Eastern asylum-seekers en route to Australia.

"We are determined to break this," Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was quoted as saying by Koridor.com online news after a ceremony at the presidential palace.

"Humanitarian aspects are indeed important ... but enforcing the national law is more important," the minister said, amid concern about the deaths of hundreds of asylum-seekers on the risky sea voyage to Australia.

"The practice of activities which use Indonesia as a transit point for illegal activities must be stopped."

In a sign of a tougher crackdown on the problem, police this week made their first arrest of a suspected syndicate chief.

They had for years complained that it was difficult to find evidence to bring the smugglers to court, even though they had known their identities.

Police on Sunday arrested Egyptian syndicate chief Abu Quassey, accused of organising the tragic voyage in October in which 350 mostly women and children drowned when their flimsy Australia-bound vessel capsized and fell apart in heavy seas off Java.

An Afghan people-smuggler was arrested on Thursday.

The minister announced that authorities had evidence that southern Sumatra had become the syndicates' new center of operations.

The syndicates were using the shores of Lampung province on the southern tip of Sumatra island as the main departure point for packing off thousands of Middle Eastern asylum-seekers in rotting, overcrowded vessels, he said.

Indonesia's chief of detectives, Inspector General Engkesman Hillep, told AFP that police only become aware last month that the syndicates had moved their main departure points from East Nusa Tenggara province, just above northern Australia, to Lampung.

Yudhoyono's pledge is slightly at odds with the navy chief's statement last week that Indonesia had humanitarian obligations to assist boats carrying asylum-seekers bound for a third country.

It coincides with the revelation by Australian officials Friday of further deaths among asylum-seekers in the perilous pipeline between Indonesia's porous shores and Australia's coastline.

Two women died when their fellow passengers set their boat alight in Australian waters off Ashmore Reef after an Australian naval vessel warned them not to enter, the officials said.

The navy rescued 160 people, including 30 children.

Canberra estimates up to 5,000 asylum-seekers are at any one time waiting in Indonesia to make the risky journey to Australia. They generally enter Malaysia without visas and then travel across the Malacca straits into Indonesia, entering through northern Sumatra.

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