Supplies running low on asylum ship as countries argue over its human cargo

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Food and water were running out aboard a Norwegian container ship crowded with 438 asylum-seekers in the Indian Ocean on Tuesday as three nations refused to give them even a temporary home.

Food and water were running out aboard a Norwegian container ship crowded with 438 asylum-seekers in the Indian Ocean on Tuesday as three nations refused to give them even a temporary home.

Australia was preparing to deliver food and medicines to the MV Tampa, which rescued the asylum-seekers from a sinking Indonesian ferry on Monday and is now anchored just outside Australian territorial waters off Christmas Island, 1,500 miles west of the mainland.

But the government in Canberra, which has adopted an increasingly hard line towards the thousands of illegal immigrants who arrive in Australia by boat, reiterated its view that the Tampa's human cargo was not its responsibility.

The ship's crew said conditions were deteriorating rapidly, with most of the passengers reportedly on hunger strike and threatening to riot if they were taken back to Indonesia. Many were said to be suffering from dysentery and dehydration, and there were particular concerns for four pregnant women and 43 children.

The asylum-seekers, who are from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, were on their way to Australia when the ferry got into trouble. Once on the Norwegian freighter, they threatened to jump overboard unless it took them to their destination. Indonesia, which appeared prepared to offer them shelter early yesterday, later ruled it out. Hasan Wirayuda, the Indonesian Foreign Minister, said: "They're on their way to Australia, let them deal with it. They are illegal migrants. Should we accept the illegal migrants? Our law does not allow it."

Thorbjoern Jagland, Norway's Foreign Minister, urged Australia to let in the asylum-seekers. "Let me make it quite clear, our understanding is that Australia ... has a duty to let these refugees land at the nearest port," he said. "The humanitarian situation is critical."

His spokesman said earlier: "The ship is just outside Australia territory and these people were picked up after a request from Australian rescue authorities."

The Norwegian shipping company reported that the asylum-seekers were in urgent need of food, medical supplies and shelter. Three Australian Air Force C130 Hercules planes transported supplies to Christmas Island yesterday, but they cannot be delivered to the Tampa until a navy frigate carrying a helicopter arrives today.

According to the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, a team of Australian doctors landed on the vessel by helicopter yesterday. They found the Tampa's occupants sheltering from the tropical heat under tarpaulins. On Christmas Island, military personnel set up an emergency base and awaited the arrival of the frigate, the HMAS Arunta.

Australia, which has been accused of shirking its humanitarian responsibilities, said Indonesia was the nearest suitable port to the area where the 438 were picked up. But the shipping company said the Tampa was not equipped with enough provisions or life rafts to undertake an ocean voyage.

Ramesh Irongar, the ship's radio officer, warned that tensions were rising on board and said there was a risk of violence if the ship headed for Indonesia.

He told Australian radio that a spokesman for the asylum-seekers had told him that "as long as he sees Christmas Island on the horizon, they are happy ... The moment they stop seeing it, which means that we are bound elsewhere, they would begin jumping in the water and they would go crazy."

Domestic condemnation of Australia's decision to turn away a boatload of asylum-seekers for the first time in its history was led by a Greens senator, Bob Brown. He said: "It's harsh, it's inhuman, and it is going to create ... resentment with other governments, as well as many people who are more humanitarian within the Australian community."