Indonesians seek asylum in UN compound

By K. Baranee Krishnaan KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters)
Fourteen Indonesian immigrants demanding political asylum crashed a truck through the main gate of the U.N. refugee agency in Malaysia's capital Monday to avoid deportation.

The dramatic entry onto diplomatic soil was the latest chapter in Malaysia's troubled efforts to repatriate thousands of immigrants who have filled detention centers.

"Fourteen of them have forced their way into our compound," Gottfried Koefner, head of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees' (UNHCR) liaison office in Kuala Lumpur, told Reuters. "They are asking for protection."

A representative of an Indonesian militant group said all 14 were from Aceh province in Indonesia's Sumatra island, scene of a separatist revolt which peaked in the early 1990s.

According to official figures, eight Indonesians from Aceh were killed Thursday during a mass deportation operation carried out by Malaysian police.

The militant group, the Acehnese National Liberation Front, said at least 39 died either during the operation or of injuries suffered during the deportation.

The Acehnese say they fear persecution if they return home, and the UNHCR said Monday it was studying requests from the Indonesians in its compound for refugee status.

In Geneva, the UNHCR urged Malaysia to halt its deportation of Indonesian immigrants, saying some may be genuine refugees.

Police would not enter the U.N. compound as it was in diplomatic territory. "We cannot go in. They have diplomatic immunity," Kuala Lumpur police chief Kamaruddin Ali said.

After Kamaruddin spoke to reporters, a group of Indonesians stepped out of the UNHCR office, shouted, "Allahu Akbar" (God is greatest) and waved a banner saying in English, "We are escaped Aceh from Sumatra." They then went back inside.

One of the Indonesians in the diplomatic compound said he had escaped from a detention center in Lenggeng last week.

"I have been here for two months already," Iskandar Ali, 24, told reporters, speaking through a fence around the compound. "I don't want to go back."

Koefner said he did not expect a quick breakthrough in the standoff. He said the UNHCR needed to interview each of the 14 Indonesians to determine if they deserved refugee status.

The UNHCR expected to hold face-to-face talks with Foreign Ministry officials in Kuala Lumpur Tuesday, Koefner said. In addition to urging Malaysia to halt deportation of Indonesians, the UNHCR has demanded access to Malaysian camps where illegal immigrants are held.

Malaysia, which has not signed the U.N. Convention on Refugees, has rejected a proposal by the Human Rights Watch group that the UNHCR should handle the deportation process, saying the immigrants were economic, not political, refugees.

Since the beginning of the year, Malaysian authorities have detained more than 17,000 people attempting to enter the country illegally, mostly by boat from neighboring Indonesia where the crumbling economy has sparked scattered food riots and a rise in unemployment.

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