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Sri Lanka arrests 67 people suspected of traveling to Australia

The Sri Lankan navy says it has arrested 67 people it says were trying to cross to Australia illegally by sea

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — The Sri Lankan navy said on Tuesday it had arrested 67 people it said were trying to cross into Australia illegally by sea.

The navy said in a statement that 12 men were first arrested near the port town of Trincomalee, 260 kilometers (160 miles) northeast of the capital Colombo on Monday and, after questioning them, intercepted 55 other persons traveling on a fishing vessel. He said the people were between the ages of 3 and 53 and five of them are suspected of being part of a smuggling ring.

Navy spokeswoman Indika de Silva said while their destination was still unclear, it was suspected they were heading for Australia.

Police were still determining the motivation for the illegal travel, de Silva said, but Sri Lankans over the years have traveled illegally to Australia and other developed countries for economic and political reasons.

Australian media reported on Tuesday that officials had returned 15 people to Sri Lanka on Saturday after they were found traveling in a boat near Christmas Island.

Sri Lanka is facing its worst economic crisis in recent memory, facing severe shortages of basic necessities, ranging from food, cooking gas, medicine and fuel to toilet paper and matches. People have been forced to queue to buy their essentials in recent months, with many returning empty-handed.

The island nation defaulted on its foreign debt for the first time after announcing last month that it would suspend payments on $7 billion in foreign debt due this year, with nearly $25 billion due by 2026 out of a total of $51 billion.

The country’s new prime minister said last week that petrol stocks had reached their last day, exacerbating transport problems and lengthening queues. But gasoline shipments paid for through an Indian line of credit started arriving over the weekend.

Power and Energy Minister Kanchana Wijesekera told reporters on Tuesday that the Cabinet had given him permission to work on an additional $500 million line of credit from India to buy fuel in addition to already sanctioned lines of credit totaling $700 million.

Sri Lanka’s economic crisis has sparked a political crisis with protesters occupying the entrance to the president’s office for more than 40 days demanding the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Attacks on peaceful protesters by government supporters sparked riots across the country, killing nine people, including a lawmaker, and injuring 200. Homes and properties of incumbent ministers and government supporters were set on fire . The violence nearly dismantled the Rajapaksa dynasty after the president’s brother Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned as prime minister amid the violence.

Two other siblings and a nephew resigned from their cabinet posts earlier in April and Gotabaya Rajapaksa himself faces the prospect of having his powers cut. New Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is tasked with reviving the economy, is working on a constitutional amendment to dilute presidential powers and empower parliament.

The amendment was discussed by the Cabinet on Monday and sent to party leaders in Parliament for their opinion.

ABC News

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