DIPLOMATIC standoff continues over refugee ship anchored off coast of Australia

Thursday, August 30th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CHRISTMAS ISLAND, Australia (AP) _ The Australian government defied intense international pressure on Thursday to allow a Norwegian cargo ship carrying hundreds of refugees, mostly Afghans, to dock here.

Prime Minister John Howard, who had heavily armed commandos occupy the ship Wednesday, has refused entry to the 438 migrants who were rescued from a foundering Indonesian ferry Monday. He insists the captain of the Tampa, anchored off of Christmas Island, must take his unwanted human cargo back to Indonesia.

But the Indonesian military said it would take military action to prevent the ship returning.

``We will not allow these illegal migrants into the country,'' Indonesia's armed forces spokesman Rear Marshal Graito Usodo told The Associated Press. ``The military is ready to take any measures to ensure the government is able to carry out this policy.''

The Norwegian Foreign Ministry, however, said it believed there is still room to negotiate after talks on Thursday.

``We no longer feel that we are talking to a solid wall,'' Karsten Klepsvik said in a telephone interview.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said meetings are being held with other governments to find a place where the asylum-seekers can be taken and processed by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Australia would then be willing to accept genuine refugees, he said.

``Our position is that if they are taken to another location that is not Australia and they are duly processed, then as is traditionally the case with Australia, we will take a share of those who are processed as refugees,'' Downer told British Broadcasting Corporation Thursday.

``I think if we can find a location for that processing this problem can be resolved fairly quickly,'' he said.

But he insisted that Australia would not take them in directly and did not rule out forcing the ship out of its waters.

Indonesia, Norway and international aid agencies have called for compassion from Australia. But Howard is up for re-election this year, and he is trailing the opposition Labor Party in most major polls amid growing anger over the amount of money spent on asylum seekers.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement Thursday that humanitarian concerns for the well-being of the asylum seekers ``appears to have been overshadowed by Australian politics.''

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, in Durban, South Africa for a world conference on racism, told the BBC that Australia has a responsibility to accept the refugees.

``The convention (on refugees) provides that they should be accepted at the nearest port and I think the issue is a very serious one,'' Robinson said Thursday.

``They should be admitted, they should be treated in an appropriate human-rights way,'' she said. ``Indonesia also has responsibility but I believe Australia has the primary responsibility at the moment.''

Howard said he would discuss the crisis later Thursday with Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri. He also said he had discussed it with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, but declined to give details.

He refused to speculate on what would happen next to the refugees. Dozens of Special Air Service commandos are now aboard the ship, having boarded the vessel after Capt. Arne Rinnan headed toward port, in defiance of an Australian order to stay away.

Norway was incensed by the armed raid on the Tampa and has repeatedly called on Australia to accept the refugees.

Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg was quoted by the newspaper VG, Norway's largest, as saying Howard told him by phone, just hours before it happened, that ``I am going to employ armed forces against the ship.''

``It was totally unreal,'' Stoltenberg was quoted as saying.

The ship is only equipped to handle a crew of about 50. Refugees sought shelter from the hot tropical sun under tarpaulins stretched between containers on the deck.

Christmas Island authorities ferried food and supplies to the ship by helicopter Thursday afternoon.

Rinnan continued to reject the Australian demand that he move the ship into international waters.

``The captain's response to the demand is a clear 'no,''' said Hans C. Bangsmoen, spokesman for the ship's owner, Wilhelm Wilhelmsen Lines.

Howard said that there were no major health problems among the refugees, though some were reportedly pregnant.

Christmas Island is Australia's most remote territory. The 15-mile-long island, with a population of 1,500, is 1,550 miles west of the nearest major Australian city, Darwin. It is a magnet for illegal immigrants and smuggling gangs because it is just two days voyage from Indonesia.