Sri Lanka arrests 98 Australia-bound boatpeople

Sri Lanka's navy on Saturday detained 98 would-be asylum-seekers making for Australia, an official said, the largest group since Canberra tightened restrictions on boatpeople headed to its shores.

They were travelling in two fishing trawlers along the northwestern and eastern coasts of Sri Lanka, a navy spokesman said, adding that one boat carried 77 people while the other had 21.

"They were handed over to the police for further action," the spokesman said. "Among those detained was a woman."

The detection was the biggest since Australia's parliament last week passed a law to transfer asylum-seekers arriving by boat to holding centres on Pacific islands before considering their application for refugee status.

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard's administration has struggled to cope with a record influx of boatpeople this year, many originally from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iran and Iraq who make their way to Australia via Asia.

Sri Lankan authorities say they have arrested nearly 1,000 people who have tried to leave for Australia illegally this year.

Australia hopes the prospect of years in detention on remote Pacific islands will deter asylum-seekers from attempting the dangerous sea voyage, which has cost hundreds of lives over the past decade.

Sri Lankans pay up to $3,000 for a place on trawlers run by people smugglers who promise to take them to Australia in about two weeks.

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