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Nauru agrees to take extra refugees

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, right, praised Indonesia's increased efforts to reduce people trafficking  

SYDNEY, Australia -- Australia has solved its most pressing illegal immigration problem by striking a multi-million dollar deal with the tiny Pacific island of Nauru to take an extra 237 asylum-seekers off its hands.

Australian government officials said Monday they would provide Nauru with fuel, medical expenses and power generators in exchange for accepting the additional asylum-seekers for processing after they were picked up by the Australian Navy late Friday.

The latest boat-load, believed to be from Iraq, join 433 other asylum-seekers bound for Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, aboard the Australian troop carrier Manoora.

Once in Port Moresby, the asylum-seekers will be flown to either New Zealand or Nauru to have their refugee status assessed.

Australia's tide of refugees  
One too many asylum seekers

Australian Defense Minister Peter Reith told Reuters Monday Australia would give Nauru fuel, write off outstanding medical bills for its citizens in Australia and provide power generators in return for accepting the extra asylum-seekers.

"I wouldn't quibble with that," Reith said when he was asked if the cost could be more than A$ 20 million (US$ 10.4 million).

Nauru, the world's smallest republic with 12,000 people on 21 square km (eight square miles), has emerged as Australia's white knight since Canberra refused to allow a Norwegian cargo ship to land 433 mainly Afghan asylum seekers it rescued at sea.

New Zealand has also agreed to accept 150 of the asylum-seekers.

Whether the boat people are actually sent to New Zealand and Nauru from Papua New Guinea still depends on a court ruling, expected later this week.

Extra supplies

Nauru President Rene Harris said Monday his country -- once rich from phosphate mining -- was glad to help its friends.

Australian navy patrol boats are also used to apprehend illegal fishing vessels
Australian navy patrol boats are also used to apprehend illegal fishing vessels  

The additional asylum-seekers were picked up following the interception Friday night of a boat off Australia's remote northwest coast.

They were then transferred to the Manoora which took on extra supplies to cope with the increased numbers from the northern Australian town of Darwin at the weekend.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard, currently in the United States, said the government would introduce legislation into parliament which would be backdated to take effect from 2 p.m. (0400 GMT) Saturday, to make it tougher for people arriving by boat to lodge claims for asylum.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said Sunday that Indonesia had prevented a third boat carrying asylum seekers from heading for Australia.

"At no stage did this latest vessel reach Australian territorial waters. It did enter the contiguous zone, but it did not enter the territorial waters and as a result questions of application for asylum status do not arise," he said.

Diplomatic standoff

Downer told reporters Indonesian authorities had declined permission for the ship to be boarded while it was still in Indonesian waters.

He said the vessel was later boarded in international waters near Australia's Ashmore Reef after warnings for it to turn around.

The 433 asylum seekers already on the Manoora were the center of a diplomatic standoff between Australia, Indonesia and Norway when they were rescued from a sinking Indonesian ferry by the Norwegian ship Tampa.

The cargo ship remained off Australia's Christmas Island for eight days after Australia refused permission for it to dock.

Indonesia praised

Foreign minister Downer praised Indonesian authorities for intercepting a third ship heading to Australian waters.

"Without going into the details of this there has been a substantial effort made by the Indonesians to stop another boat coming to Australia in the last day or so. That boat hasn't come," Downer told Australian Broadcasting Corporation television.

"We have to be decisive and forceful in trying to break this ugly people trafficking racket," he said.

Downer headed a delegation to Jakarta last week seeking more co-operation from Indonesia to stem the flow of asylum seekers.

Criticism of legislation

Howard said on Saturday the legislation, to be introduced in parliament this month, would remove Christmas Island and the Ashmore reef islands from Australia's migration zone, the area within territorial waters from where applications for asylum can be lodged.

Both territories are close to Indonesia and the place where a number of boats carrying asylum seekers have landed.

The minor but influential Australian Democrats quickly condemned the proposed laws as a knee-jerk reaction and said it might violate Australia's international obligations.

"Excising parts of Australia from federal law is not only extraordinary -- I mean what next, exemptions from the Racial Discrimination Act or sex discrimination laws -- but it also flies in the face of our international obligations and that's greatly concerning," Democrats leader Natasha Stott Despoja said during an Australian television interview.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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