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People smuggling kingpin among asylum seekers

SYDNEY, Oct 19 – A convicted people smuggler has been found among a boat-load of Sri Lankan asylum seekers holed up on a wooden vessel in Indonesia, Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said Monday.

The revelation came after Australian authorities said a new boat carrying more suspected asylum seekers had been picked up heading to Australia, the third such vessel detected in as many days.

The smuggler, Abraham Lauhenaspessy, known as "Captain Bram", was arrested after being found on the boat picked up by Indonesian authorities last week as it carried 255 Tamil asylum seekers towards Australia, Smith said.

"Abraham, or Captain Bram as he is known, has been taken into custody by Indonesian authorities," he told Australian public radio hours before travelling to Jakarta with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd for a visit that will include talks on people smuggling.

"I am advised that he was on the boat. He is now in their custody. He is of course someone who has previously been convicted of people smuggling offences and well known to Australian and Indonesian authorities," he said.

"He has been detained. Let’s now leave that to the Indonesian judicial and legal processes to take their course," he said ahead of his trip to attend Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s inauguration.

Fairfax newspapers alleged that "Captain Bram" had brought more than 1,500 asylum seekers to Australia since he emerged as a key organiser of Indonesia’s people-smuggling operations in 1999.

A spokesman for the Sri Lankan asylum seekers, who at the weekend ended a hunger strike launched after they refused to disembark their vessel moored in an Indonesian port, confirmed Captain Bram was on board.

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The spokesman, known as Alex, claimed the vessel was intercepted after Captain Bram had turned it back after failing to make a rendezvous with a smaller boat that would have returned him to Indonesia.

He insisted on turning everyone back to avoid being detained by authorities in Australia, where people smugglers can be jailed for up to 20 years, Alex claimed.

"The selfish move that he has made has cost 260 lives… a decision that he made… to save himself has ruined our families’ lives as well.

"It has destroyed a dream that people were searching for freedom," Alex told public radio.

Indonesian officials were trying to negotiate with the Sri Lankans, who have threatened to set fire to their boat if they are forced to disembark in Indonesia and undergo asylum procedures that could take years.

Australian authorities said they had intercepted another boat carrying more than 30 people suspected asylum seekers, the 33rd vessel this year, off Australia’s Ashmore Island late Sunday.

A second group of 79 asylum seekers was meanwhile transferred to an Australian warship after the vessel they were sailing got into trouble and sent out a distress signal, Smith said.

The boat had been intercepted by the HMAS Armidale on Sunday after Indonesian search and rescue authorities asked for help from Australia.

"Those people have now been placed onboard the HMAS Viking which was in the area," Smith said, adding that they were being taken to Australia’s offshore detention centre at Christmas Island.

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A third ship was reportedly in trouble in Malaysian waters.

Three Indonesian men were due to appear in court in the western city of Perth charged with people-smuggling offences after two boats carrying 146 people were intercepted on September 12.

The pair face up to 20 years behind bars or fine of 220,000 Australian dollars (200,000 US) if found guilty.

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