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Migrants on cramped ship appear to be in good shape

By the CNN Wire Staff
Two Canadian navy tugboats guide MV Sun Sea, suspected of carrying 490 Tamil migrants, into dock on August 13, 2010.
Two Canadian navy tugboats guide MV Sun Sea, suspected of carrying 490 Tamil migrants, into dock on August 13, 2010.
  • No weapons have been found on cramped vessel boarded off British Columbia
  • Officials are investigating whether it was involved in human smuggling
  • Passengers had sufficient food and water on long voyage

(CNN) -- Almost 500 Sri Lankan migrants who spent three months on a cramped ship before being taken into Canadian custody appear to be in good health, officials in British Columbia said Saturday.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police said no weapons have been found so far on the ship, which was boarded Thursday by Canadian officials off the coast of British Columbia.

The Canadian Mounties and other agencies are investigating whether there was human smuggling or other criminal activity, said inspector Tracey Rook at a Saturday press conference.

"I believe we're dealing with human smuggling in this instance," said Rob Johnston of the Canada Border Services Agency.

Many of the migrants have been transferred to detention facilities, officials said at an afternoon press conference, and about two dozen have received medical treatment.

"Their overall health was good given the circumstances," said Dr. Richard Crow of the Vancouver Island Health Authority. None have shown signs of having a communicable disease. The passengers had plenty of food and water on board the ship.

Canadian officials had been monitoring the vessel, MV Sun Sea, after its departure from Sri Lanka nearly three months ago. The ship first stopped in Thailand before crossing the Pacific and moving up the west coast of North America, Canadian Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said earlier this week.

Toews indicated that officials believe the ship is "part of a larger human smuggling and human trafficking enterprise," and there are concerns "that there are elements of the LTTE and Tamil Tigers on board this vessel." The Tamil Tigers, also known as the Liberation Tigers of Eelam, are a militant separatist group that have been accused of war crimes and played a significant and controversial role in the Sri Lankan civil war.

Krisna Saravanamuttu, a spokesman for the National Council of Canadian Tamils, said similar fears were expressed in May when 76 Tamils arrived aboard the Ocean Lady. But, he said, no evidence has been uncovered to support those fears.

Saravanamuttu said the Sun Sea is believed to be carrying primarily Tamils, Sri Lanka's largest minority population. Tamils, he said, have been seeking asylum in Canada since the 1980s because of Sri Lanka's lengthy and bloody civil war. Now, he said, Canada's 300,000 Tamils is the largest grouping outside Sri Lanka.

Toews, however, said that regardless of whether the Sun Sea's passengers are regular Tamils fleeing their devastated homeland or militants fleeing the Sri Lankan military, the ship had to be stopped.

"It's very important that Canada deals with this situation in a very clear decisive way in order to send the message that human smuggling and human trafficking is not acceptable," Toews said.