Indonesian officers 'helped' asylum seekers

FIVE Indonesian military officers have been arrested as they helped 45 asylum seekers make their way to a boat headed for Christmas Island.

The men, who were in the uniform of the Indonesian army, TNI, but unarmed, were guiding a convoy of cars and minibuses towards the south-eastern coast of Java, a popular disembarkation point for Australia.

The asylum seekers were from Iran and Syria and were intending to board a boat bound for Christmas Island, an army spokesman said last night.

The spokesman, Iskandar Sitompul, said the soldiers had been identified as part of the Siliwangi military command near the west Javanese town of Bogor.

Bogor and its surrounds, about two hours drive from the capital, Jakarta, have become a haven for asylum seekers in recent years, with thousands waiting there in rented accommodation until people smugglers find them a boat to Australia.

Mr Sitompul said the soldiers were from an infantry battalion placed in the town.

''They are now at the military police office. We are investigating what their roles were, whether they gave help by providing the buses. Hopefully we'll have more information by tomorrow,'' he said.

A local police spokesman, Senior Commissioner Martinus Sitompul, said the asylum seekers had also been taken into custody in Ciwaru village, in the Sukabumi regency of West Java, about 3am yesterday.

The group consisted of 25 men, 12 women, six boys and two girls from Syria and Iran.

Local residents had tipped off police to the migrants heading for Pelabuhan Ratu then Ciemas on their way to Christmas Island, the police spokesman said. They were captured on Ciwaru beach and taken to the local immigration office.

The military in Indonesia receives only 30 per cent of its budget from government funding, and must make up the rest with private enterprises, which include both legitimate and criminal businesses. A local source said it was not surprising that one of these businesses might be the lucrative trade in asylum seekers.

The arrests come as another five Indonesian soldiers await trial over their alleged involvement in organising an asylum seeker boat that sank on its way to Australia last year.

As many as 200 people drowned when the overloaded boat, packed with about 250 asylum seekers, sank off the coast of East Java. Just 49 people survived the tragedy, which occurred in rough monsoonal seas on December 17.

Meanwhile another boat arrived at Cocos Island yesterday carrying 55 people, including a woman and three children. The boat was met by a customs inflatable craft as it arrived at the west island in the tiny Australian territory in the Indian Ocean early in the morning.

A further boat was intercepted hours earlier at Christmas Island, with 65 passengers. Since the weekend, seven boats have arriving carrying up to 416 people.

With Daniel Flitton and Agencies

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