Stand-off after Australian SAS boards refugee ship

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Australian SAS soldiers today boarded a cargo ship carrying 438 refugees. Its captain had defied orders banning it from entering Australian territorial waters off Christmas Island and his Norwegian shipping company later said that he would refuse to return to open sea.

The Australian Prime Minister John Howard said the soldiers had secured the ship without any report of violence. He said: "The government was left with no alternative but to instruct the chief of the Australian defense force to arrange for defense personnel to board and secure the vessel."

Norway, which maintains Australia should allow the refugees to disembark, alerted the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Red Cross and the International Maritime Organization. UNHCR officials are asking for a meeting with Australian representatives in Geneva to find a solution.

Norway's Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg said: "One cannot force a ship which the captain says is unseaworthy to sail into international waters."

The captain is complaining that the ship has safety equipment for only 40 crew.

In a statement to Parliament in Canberra, Mr Howard said the ship's captain had decided to steer toward Christmas Island after refugees threatened to jump overboard if they did not receive medical attention.

Defence officials told the ship's captain the best thing to do would be to return to international waters and that helicopters would be available to take supplies and, if necessary, further personnel to the ship.

Mr Howard said: "Our proposition to the ship's company is that the vessel ought to return to international waters. That matter is still under discussion with the company.

"But at this stage the company has indicated that it is disinclined to return to international waters, which creates, of course, a very serious situation."

A spokesman for the ship's owner, the Wallenius Wilhelmsen shipping line, had earlier reported that the Tampa's captain, Arne Rinnan, had issued a mayday distress call fearing for the health of some of the refugees. He said there were at least six very sick people. There are dozens of children and some pregnant women among them.

On Monday, the Tampa rescued the refugees ? most of them from Afghanistan ? when the ferry carrying them from Indonesia to Australia without visas began sinking.

Squeezed onto the cargo ship under a harsh tropical sun off the coast of this remote Indian Ocean island for three days, many of the refugees have refused to eat and were threatening to jump overboard unless Australia granted them entry.

Mr Howard said the government remained determined "not to allow this vessel or its occupants, save and excepting humanitarian circumstances clearly demonstrated, to land in Australia, and we will take whatever action is needed, within the law, of course, to prevent that occurring."

He told lawmakers medical advice received by the government was that none of the asylum seekers were in need of urgent medical evacuation.

Before the Tampa was boarded, O'Donnell said it was about four nautical miles (2 kilometers) from the island. "It has broken Australian territorial boundaries and is holding its position four miles off shore," O'Donnell said.

Locals watching the drama unfold at the island's Flying Fish Cove harbor said they were disgusted with the government's reaction.

"The people here can't believe what's going on," said Gordon Thomson, a local councilor and union official who appeared to sympathize with the refugees. "It's absolute overkill. I think it's a political stunt."

Australian officials were assembling an Iroquois helicopter on Christmas Island and had been hoping to use it to ferry doctors and medical supplies to the Tampa.

Meanwhile, Australia, Indonesia and Norway continued to wrangle over who should take responsibility for the refugees. Norway urged Australia to accept them.

Earlier, Howard had said Indonesia should do more to stop asylum seekers reaching Australia.

It was not immediately clear how the Afghanis made it to Indonesia. But there has been a wave of asylum seekers who have washed up on Australian shores from Indonesia in recent months, prompting officials to believe that an organized group is bringing them over.

Canberra's tough line in refusing to accept the refugees comes as Howard seeks re-election later this year with many voters increasingly unhappy about the large sums of money spent housing and caring for the thousands of asylum seekers who arrive each year.

Christmas Island is Australia's most remote territory. The 24-kilometer (15 mile) long island's population of 1,500 people survives mainly on revenue from a phosphate mine and tourism. It is 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles) west of the nearest major Australian city, Darwin.

It is a magnet for illegal people smuggling gangs because of its closeness to Indonesia ? just two days voyage by wooden fishing boat.

Australia is a popular destination with refugees, mainly from the Middle East and South Asia, because they believe Australian courts are generous in granting visas.

Hundreds of other refugees who have arrived at Christmas Island in recent weeks have been flown by the air force to the Australian mainland where they are housed in detention centers, mainly in remote desert locations, until their asylum applications are processed.