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Page last updated at 04:54 GMT, Thursday, 23 April 2009 05:54 UK

Australia expects Sri Lanka boats

Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith, file pic from 15 April 2009
Smith is a strong critic of the Sri Lankan government offensive

There is significant risk civilians fleeing Sri Lanka's civil war will head for Australia, the country's foreign minister, Stephen Smith, has said.

"There is clearly very grave potential for displaced people coming from Sri Lanka," Mr Smith told reporters.

He has been a strong critic of the Sri Lankan government offensive, blaming it for a high civilian toll.

Officials in Australia said on Wednesday they had intercepted another boat carrying suspected asylum-seekers.

Home Affairs Minister Bob Debus said the boat was believed to have come from Sri Lanka and had 32 men on board.

Mr Debus said that while many asylum seekers were arriving from Afghanistan and Pakistan, the number coming from Sri Lanka could grow.

"We are also concerned... that there will be a surge of people, really, coming from the consequences of the terrible fighting that has been going on between Tamil and Sinhalese people," he said.

Policy wrangle

The alleged Sri Lankans most recently intercepted off Western Australia have been transferred to a navy patrol boat and are being taken to Australia's Indian Ocean territory of Christmas Island.

Map

That interception follows an explosion last week on board another boat which killed five asylum-seekers; it has been alleged that some set fire to the vessel to avoid deportation.

The increased number of asylum seeker arrivals in Australian waters has put the government's policy under pressure.

Australia's conservative opposition has accused the Labour government of softening laws against asylum-seekers, thereby encouraging the flows.

Since the policy was softened last July, 14 boats carrying more than 400 asylum seekers - mostly from Afghanistan, Iraq and Sri Lanka - have reached Australia's waters.

Immigration advocates said the number of asylum-seekers worldwide had increased by 12% during 2008, and Australia was seeing only a fraction of that, with numbers up from 3,970 in 2007 to 4,750 in 2008.

The government has previously said violence in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka is fuelling people smuggling operations in Asia.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has described people-smugglers as "scum" who should "rot in hell".



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