Malaysia halts people-smuggling ship bound for Australia, NZealand

Malaysia has arrested more than a dozen members of an alleged people trafficking syndicate after intercepting a ship carrying 127 Sri Lankan migrants believed to be bound for Australia and New Zealand, authorities said Saturday.

Maritime authorities on Tuesday halted a modified tanker named "Etra" in Malaysian territorial waters off southern Johor state, national police chief Mohamad Fuzi Harun said in a statement on Saturday.

Nearly 100 Sri Lankan men, 24 women and nine children were aboard the ship, which was making its way to international waters when it was stopped.

Mohamad said authorities arrested 16 people involved in an "international network" of people smugglers, including three Indonesians and four Malaysians aboard a fishing vessel used to transport the migrants from the Johor coast to the tanker.

Another four Malaysians were arrested in the nearby state capital of Johor Bahru, while a fifth was taken into custody in Penang.

Four Sri Lankan men were arrested aboard the tanker for suspected involvement in the trafficking network, which Mohamad said had been operating since 2017.

Mohamad said the remaining 127 passengers aboard the vessel had been detained for violating immigration laws, according to news reports which did not say where they were being held or if they had been allowed to disembark.