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AUSTRALIA - MIGRANTS - 2001-08-29


International tensions are rising over the fate of a Norwegian freighter carrying hundreds of mostly Afghan migrants in waters off the northern coast of Australia.

Four nations continue to argue about who should take in the migrants. One of them, Norway, made an official protest Wednesday after Australian troops boarded the freighter, Tampa, to prevent it from docking in their nation's territorial waters.

The Australian troop deployment prompted Norway to file a formal complaint with the United Nations and the International Red Cross. Norway says Australia's actions violate international refugee treaties.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard says troops took control of the ship after it came within two nautical miles of Australia's Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean. He says the vessel, with 438 refugees on board, has been ordered to return to international waters.

The ship's owners say the vessel will remain in Australian waters because it is not equipped to carry the migrants elsewhere. Norwegian radio describes the situation aboard the freighter as critical, with dozens of children and pregnant women among the hunger-striking refugees.

The freighter rescued the asylum seekers late Sunday from a crippled Indonesian ferry that had been illegally transporting them to Australia.

Canberra says it is up to Indonesia to take in the migrants. But Indonesia argues it has no responsibility for them. Afghanistan's ruling Taleban says Australia is responsible for the migrants' safety.

The freighter rescued the asylum seekers late Sunday from a crippled Indonesian ferry that had been illegally transporting them to Australia.

Australia refused to allow the Norwegian vessel to dock at Christmas island, and the ship has been stranded in the Indian Ocean ever since, with Australia and Indonesia arguing over the fate of the refugees.

Meanwhile, Norway says it is reporting Australia's refusal to accept the ship to the United Nations, Red Cross and other international agencies.

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Norway's foreign minister says Australia's continued refusal is a violation of normal maritime rules under which vessels go to the nearest port in an emergency.

Canberra says it is up to Indonesia to take in the migrants. Indonesia argues it has no responsibility for the refugees, many of whom are said to be on a hunger strike to protest Australia's decision to deny them entry.

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