A GROUP of asylum seekers have reportedly seized a fishing boat off Sri Lanka and are seeking to come to Australia.
The Sri Lankan Times Online has reported a boat was seized from a fishing crew at Kudawella, 50 nautical miles off the Hambantota coast on Monday.
According to Sri Lanka's high commissioner to Australia, Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe, the fishing boat with five or six people went out on Monday night and there was a ''confrontation'' with a smaller boat.
However, he said it was not clear if the boat was heading towards Australia or if the people involved were asylum seekers, rival fisherman or pirates. ''There was some degree of criminality,'' he said.
The Sri Lankan navy and police were last night hunting for the fishing trawler but there are differing accounts of what happened. A spokesman for Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said Mr Bowen had spoken to Admiral Samarasinghe on the matter.
''[Minister Bowen] was told that details remain sketchy and investigations are continuing in Sri Lanka,'' he said. ''The AFP [Australian Federal Police] are assessing reports and any other relevant information, and are in liaison with Sri Lankan authorities.''
Local reports suggest the smaller boat approached the fishing trawler in the early hours of Tuesday morning, in the seas off Tangalle in Sri Lanka's south.
They allegedly attacked the captain and crew of the ship, Chejan, with knives, taking the skipper with them, but casting off, it is believed, five fishermen into the sea.
Two of the injured men, 28-year-old Loku Yakdehige Roshan and 30-year-old Galappaththi Arachchinge Suranaga, clung to a piece of board floating in the water and were rescued by two other ships, the MV Lusail and the MV Edith Maersk.
''The timely action taken by the two merchant vessels [was] commendable and … saved the lives of the fishermen,'' Navy Commander Kosala Warnakulasuriya said. The two rescued fishermen were handed over to the Sri Lankan navy and taken to a local hospital. They were interviewed by police but said they had no information about who their attackers were or where they were going. They did not know what happened to the other three men allegedly thrown into the sea. Those men may have stayed on board the boat, and could be bound for Australia too, according to media reports.
A man, believed to be the owner of the smaller boat that raided the fishing trawler, was arrested on suspicion of being involved in planning the attack.
More than 500 protesters in the village of Kudawella, from where the fishing trawler left, staged a demonstration demanding the perpetrators be brought to justice.
A spokesman for the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said they were aware of the incident but had not received any distress call.
Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison said the incident showed the need to engage more closely with Sri Lanka on the asylum-seeker issue.
■ Two boats carrying asylum seekers have been picked up by Australian authorities - one carrying 64 passengers off Christmas Island, and one carrying 65 off Cocos Island.
With Daniel Flitton and AAP