Indian link in LTTE ‘refugee’ ship exposed

Investigations into the seizure of ‘Ocean Lady’, carrying 76 Sri Lankan Tamils have taken an unexpected turn with indications of a possible Indian link. According to reports, the vessel had left India early September before being intercepted off the west coast by the Canadians.

Quoting international shipping records, the National Post (of Canada) writer Stewart Bell has said that the ship, sailing under the false name of ‘Ocean Lady’, had left an India port early last month.

An authoritative Sri Lankan Navy official told The Island that the vessel was one of few owned by the LTTE and its front organisations.

"We destroyed eight floating warehouses between September 2006 and October 2007. ‘Ocean Lady’ is believed to be one of the four remaining ships tasked with smuggling arms and ammunition during the last stages of the conflict. They never succeeded," he said.

The SLN official said that three other vessels carrying Sri Lankan Tamils had been intercepted jointly by the Australian and Indonesian authorities over the past fortnight.

According to the National Post, the vessel, after a stop in Mumbai on Aug. 31 (formerly known as ‘Princess Easwary’) had sailed from the northwest Indian port of Mundra on Sept. 8. That was its last recorded port of call until it entered Canadian waters.

The National Post said: "Sgt. Duncan Pound, spokesman for the RCMP Border Integrity Programme, declined to comment on what police had discovered so far, but said tracing the ship was an integral part of the investigation.

But investigating the ship will be a challenge. Registered in Cambodia, the ‘Princess Easwary’ visited ports in Indonesia, Taiwan, Japan and the Philippines in 2008, according to Lloyds MIU, which tracks vessel movements.

While records indicate the ship’s last port of call was India, it may have made unreported stops elsewhere in South or Southeast Asia to pick up its human cargo before heading for Canada, reports Bell.

The company listed as the ship’s owner does not appear to exist.

The migrant smuggling ship intercepted off the West Coast carrying 76 Sri Lankan men is owned by the outlawed Tamil Tigers and previously smuggled weapons from North Korea to Sri Lanka, says an international expert on South Asia terrorism.

The ship was intercepted off Vancouver Island on Oct. 16 by RCMP officers supported by the Canadian Forces and Canada Border Service Agency.

The Canadian Tamil Congress says the men are all ethnic Tamils fleeing persecution. But Gunaratna said "a number of individuals" have been identified as suspected Tigers, though he didn’t elaborate.

A spokesman for Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said the government would take steps to deport any passengers with criminal or terrorist backgrounds, including members of the LTTE, which is an outlawed entity in Canada.

The men are being held in Maple Ridge, B.C., and began appearing before the Immigration and Refugee Board last week. One passenger with relatives in Canada was reportedly ordered released from custody. The others remain in custody pending interviews with border officials. Those freed are expected to make refugee claims.

With the collapse of the LTTE in Sri Lanka, Canada can expect to face fresh waves of refugees from Sri Lanka, said Tom Quiggin, an Ottawa terrorism expert who writes for Canada’s new international affairs magazine ‘Global Brief’.

"The LTTE has not given up on its programme of an independent homeland, and they will continue their campaign of violence from wherever they can re-establish themselves," he said Saturday.

"The LTTE, which deserves its description as a terrorist group, will no doubt be looking to move many of its senior leaders and fighters into well-known safe havens such as Canada.

"Intelligence and immigration authorities will have the shadow of the 1985 Air India disaster, a previous intelligence failure, looming over them, as they try to identify this group and many others that will follow them."

Human-rights groups and Canadian Tamils urge compassion for the men, and are calling for a broader public understanding of the complex political situation in Sri Lanka. As members of Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority, the men face torture or death if returned to their homeland, they say.

"These men have fled murder and abduction, which is very rampant in Sri Lanka . . . and they are seeking refuge where they will be safe and that, to them, is Canada," said Sue Nathan of the Canadian Tamil Congress, in a news conference outside the Citizenship and Immigration Canada offices in Vancouver.

Lorne Waldman, a Toronto immigration lawyer representing six of the men, said that, to his knowledge, the vast majority have no ties with the Tigers. "That is just my preliminary information. Obviously, we are going to have to wait and see what Canada finds out," he said.

Waldman said five of his clients have family in Canada and have been able to provide Canadian authorities with original identification documents. He’s hopeful that will be enough to allow their release from detention as early as this week.

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