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Tamil asylum ship docks in Canada

At sea for three crowded months, hundreds of Tamil asylum seekers from war-ravaged Sri Lanka are seeking refuge in Canada after their rusty, ramshackle cargo ship finally edged into port off British Colombia.

Some passengers stood on the deck, shaded by striped lengths of cloth, after the MV Sun Sea pulled in. Paramedics wearing surgical masks tended to them. A few were taken away on stretchers and put in ambulances - all were shielded from view by black umbrellas.

"This is a new beginning," said Canadian Tamil Congress spokesman Gary Anandasangare.

The arrival of the 490 refugees, however, raised concerns among Canadian officials that the rebel Tamil Tigers, which fought and lost a bloody 25-year war for independence that ended in May 2009, was smuggling people into Canada, home to the largest Tamil community outside Sri Lanka and India.

"Our goal is to ensure that our refugee system is not hijacked by criminals or terrorists," said Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, whose government has regarded the Tamil Tigers as a terrorist group since 2006.

Last October, a ship carrying 76 Sri Lankan migrants was intercepted in Canadian waters. All are free while their cases are being processed.

While the war is over, Tamil leaders in Canada say, the ethnic Tamil minority still faces persecution. The United Nations and some non-governmental organisations have reported people in Sri Lanka are still being abused.

"If people looked at what they've endured back home, people would give these refugees the benefit of the doubt, which is what they do for every other person who approaches our borders," Canadian Tamil Congress spokeswoman Majula Selvarajah said.

Toews said the Tamil Tigers are watching how Canadian authorities respond to the latest arrival to determine their next move. "I don't view this as an isolated independent act," he said.

Chitranganee Wagiswara, Sri Lanka's high commissioner to Canada, said now that the civil war is over, the Tigers might be trying to regroup in Canada, a country that has historically been a large source of their fundraising.

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