Timor welcomes refugees rejected by Australia

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A face-saving solution to the six-day refugee impasse in the Indian Ocean may finally be agreed this weekend after the castigation of Australia for asking its tiny, impoverished neighbour, East Timor, to take in the stranded asylum-seekers.

East Timorese leaders reacted positively to the suggestion that the fledgling nation should welcome the 433 occupants of the Norwegian freighter MS Tampa, whom Australia has refused to accept.

However, the United Nations officials who still administer East Timor in the lead-up to independence were distinctly lukewarm. The territory held its first democratic elections just this week after centuries of colonial rule by Portugal and Indonesia, and it is struggling to cope with a major refugee problem of its own.

Indonesia, the departure point for the last leg of the asylum-seekers' journey, has also declined to give them a temporary refuge. They were plucked to safety by the Tampa from a sinking Indonesian ferry last Monday.

The Australian government was last night weighing up its response to a three-point plan put forward in Geneva by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which would see the Tampa passengers taken temporarily to Christmas Island, where they could be screened and their refugee status assessed.

Norway, which has previously declared that the ship's occupants are not its responsibility, yesterday offered to resettle some of the group. Australia said on Thursday that it would be prepared to accept a share if they were declared genuine refugees. New Zealand is also considering giving some of them homes.

The proposal to take them to East Timor for screening was greeted with astonishment in Australia, where it was interpreted as an attempt by the government to call in favours. Australia, which is a generous aid donor to East Timor, led the multinational force that quelled the pro-Indonesian militia violence that followed a vote for independence from Jakarta two years ago.

Later in the day the idea was played down by the government with the Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, insisting that discussions were taking place with several countries. He said: "It would be a gross overstatement for there to be a focus on East Timor."

East Timor's Foreign Minister, Jose Ramos-Horta, had said that the country would be happy to house the asylum-seekers provided that they did not stay long and the UN paid the bill. He said it was prepared to offer temporary refuge because his own people had "benefited enormously from international generosity" during the bloody transition from Indonesian rule.

However, Sergio Vieira de Mello, the territory's UN administrator, said later that he was relieved that the idea had been dropped. "I don't need that right now. We have other urgent problems," he said.

The Tampa is four miles off Christmas Island, which is 1,600 miles north-west of Perth and 200 miles south of Java. The UNHCR plan, presented after a meeting between agency officials and representatives of Australia, Indonesia and Norway, envisages the Tampa passengers being allowed to disembark temporarily at Christmas Island for humanitarian purposes and for screening there. It includes provision for them to be transferred to other countries for further screening or resettlement.

A UNHCR spokesman, Rod Redmond, said: "We are confident this is the most logical way of resolving this extremely complicated episode." He hailed East Timor's reaction to Australia's proposal as "a truly humanitarian response from a nation in the making with few resources".

As the diplomatic manoeuvring continued, the asylum-seekers – who include four pregnant women and a disputed number of sick people – received a visit from the Norwegian Ambassador to Australia, Ove Thorsheim.

Mr Thorsheim reported that the asylum-seekers were hungry and thirsty but were adamant they only wanted to go to Australia. Allowing this was "the only viable option" to end the stand-off, he said.

Mr Thorsheim, who was given a letter by the asylum-seekers to deliver to the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, said: "There is little water and limited food. Sanitation is unsatisfactory." He added that the SAS troops, who boarded the Tampa on Wednesday to prevent it from reaching Christmas Island, were well organised and running a tight ship.

While public opinion overwhelmingly backs the government's hardline stance, pockets of opposition are emerging. About 70 people staged a protest in Melbourne yesterday and on Christmas Island itself, 300 locals ­ about one-sixth of the population ­ demonstrated in support of allowing the ship's occupants to land.

Also in Melbourne, a Federal Court judge granted a temporary injunction to civil rights lawyers banning the Howard government from forcibly moving the Tampa out of Australian waters.