Australia turns away rescue ship carrying asylum-seekers

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The Australiam government was condemned as inhumane on Monday for refusing to allow into its territorial waters a ship with 434 asylum-seekers, including sick people and children.

The Australiam government was condemned as inhumane on Monday for refusing to allow into its territorial waters a ship with 434 asylum-seekers, including sick people and children.

The would-be refugees, understood to be mainly from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, had been rescued from a crippled Indonesian ferry by the Norwegian cargo ship Tampa. They include 22 women and 43 children. On Mon night they were 12 miles off Christmas Island, the Australian outpost 1,000 miles west of the mainland.

Wahid Supriyadi, Indonesia's foreign affairs spokesman, said: "If Australian authorities refused [entry] because they don't have proper documents, we don't see any reason to let them in. We find it hard to believe that the ferry departed from Indonesian waters. Refugees normally travel on small boats."

Karsten Klepsvik, a Norwegian foreign ministry spokesman, urged Australia and Indonesia to take responsibility for the refugees.

Australia's conservative government, led by John Howard, has adopted a hardline stance towards the swelling numbers of "Boat People" arriving on its shores, but this is the first time Australia has turned away a ship. "We simply cannot allow a situation to develop where Australia is seen ... as a country of easy destination," Mr Howard said. Food and medical supplies would be sent to the Tampa by helicopter from Christmas Island, the Prime Minister added.

He said his government had taken legal advice and "it is our view, as a matter of international law, this matter is something that must be resolved between the government of Indonesia and the government of Norway".

An increasing number of refugees from the Middle East travel overland to Indonesia and pay "people smugglers" to take them to Australia, often in unseaworthy boats.

Tampa had diverted from its course to Singapore to answer emergency calls from a sinking Indonesian vessel, the KM Palapa 1. Arne Rinnan, the Tampa's captain, said five men had stormed the bridge and ordered him to take the group to Australia, threatening to throw themselves overboard unless he agreed.

"They flatly refused to go back to Indonesia and they were threatening to jump overboard," Captain Rinnan added. "It could have been turning into a really ugly situation." He said the men told him: "We have left everything behind. The situation is very bad. We do not want to go to Singapore or Indonesia. We have nothing to lose."

Captain Rinnan told an Australian radio station he was worried about the health of two asylum-seekers, one who had suffered a suspected heart attack and the other who had a broken leg. Trod Svensen, vice-president of the Norwegian shipping company Wilh Wilhemsen, said some of the refugees had dysentery and other illnesses.

Several such boats have arrived in Australia in the past fortnight, carrying more than 1,500 asylum-seekers, mainly from Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran, most of them via Christmas Island. The Tampa boatload is the largest single group to attempt entry. One report says a second boat carrying about 500 people is still heading for the island.

The Australian government's decision was condemned by human rights groups. Margaret Piper, executive director of the Refugee Council of Australia, said: "To prevent people from seeking protection is something that is contrary to our international obligations."

Australia, whose refugee policy is among the world's harshest, has been criticised by the United Nations and Amnesty International for detaining asylum-seekers in grim Outback camps while their applications are processed.

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