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Elite Australian troops storm refugee ship, raising stakes in asylum standoff

CHRISTMAS ISLAND, Australia (AP) – Commandos armed with machine guns seized control of a Norwegian ship Wednesday after its captain defied orders not to bring its unwanted cargo of 438 refugees into Australian territorial waters.

Prime Minister John Howard, seeking a third term in elections later this year, has refused to take in the refugees, saying they were rescued in international waters and should have been taken to the closest port – which was in Indonesia. Many Australians are angry at the high cost of dealing with thousands of refugees who arrive each year.

Witnesses said dozens of elite Australian troops sped across the coral dotted azure waters of Christmas Island’s Flying Fish Cove in three small boats before climbing aboard the Norwegian ship, the Tampa.



”They looked like they were on their way to a combat mission,” resident Oliver Lyons said. ”It seems to be a complete overreaction. In the past the refugees have been very well behaved and quiet and there has been no danger.”

The armed raid dramatically raised the stakes in diplomatic exchanges between Australia, Indonesia and Norway over who should house the mainly Afghani refugees, who were rescued Monday by the Tampa’s crew from a sinking Indonesian ferry in international waters.



Indonesia, struggling to cope with more than 1 million of its own citizens fleeing civil unrest, also doesn’t want them.

Norway, incensed by the armed raid on the Tampa, called again on Australia to take in the refugees, among them pregnant women and dozens of children.

Norway’s Foreign Ministry summoned Australian Ambassador Malcolm Leader on Wednesday, but progress in talks was apparently minimal. ”We have a dialogue, but the situation is deadlocked,” ministry spokesman Karsten Klepsvik said.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said it was ”very concerned” for the refugees and was trying to bring representatives for Norway, Australia and Indonesia together in Geneva to negotiate a solution to the standoff. But officials from those countries have said they would have to consult first with their governments.

”We had hoped it would happen today,” UNCHR spokeswoman Millicent Mutuli said, referring to the meeting. ”Now we are probably looking at tomorrow.”

A spokesman for New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark said New Zealand would consider offering the refugees asylum, if it was asked.

Hans C. Bangsmoen, spokesman for the ship’s owner, the Wallenius Wilhelmsen company, was quoted by the Norwegian news agency NTB as saying that three doctors boarded the Tampa with the Australian troops. ”The soldiers said they were guarding the doctors,” he said.

A group of seven SAS troops left the ship Wednesday evening but refused to comment on conditions on board.

Howard ordered the boarding after the ship’s captain, Arne Rinnan, steered it to within a few miles of the shore of Christmas Island, claiming some refugees were threatening to throw themselves into the Indian Ocean if they did not receive medical attention.

”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,” Howard said in a statement to Parliament.

Late Wednesday, the Tampa remained close to the island, illuminated by bright lights on deck.

The ship’s operator condemned the military action.

”It’s totally unheard of to use military force in a situation like this,” Per Ronnevig, a spokesman for Wallenius Wilhelmsen told Sydney radio. ”The Australian government is putting up a brand new standard in established international rules as far as behavior at sea is concerned.”

Ronnevig said that the Tampa’s captain refuses to leave Australian waters, arguing the ship is not seaworthy. Howard said if the ship does not return to international waters it would create a ”very serious situation.”

Late Wednesday, Howard introduced new laws in Parliament strengthening the government’s rights to turn ships away from its waters.

Australia’s government-funded Human Rights Commissioner, Sev Ozdowski, appealed to Canberra to take the refugees in.

”Since the vessel has entered Australian waters … Australia can and should respond positively in accordance with its traditionally good humanitarian reputation,” he said.

Meanwhile, about 150 protesters took to the streets of Melbourne to express their anger, saying the raid was a calculated move by the government to win support ahead of elections.

In Afghanistan, the hard-line Taliban government urged Australia to grant the refugees asylum.

”These are poor people. Their problem is not political,” Abdul Rehman Ottaq, director of the Taliban’s Consular Department, told the Bakhtar News Agency in Kabul.

It was not immediately clear how the Afghanis made it to Indonesia. But officials believe Indonesian crime syndicates are involved.

Christmas Island is 15 miles long and its 1,500 people survives mainly on revenue from a phosphate mine and tourism. It is 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.


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