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Refugee crisis widens as NZ speaks out

By staff and wires

CHRISTMAS ISLAND, Australian Territory -- New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark has hinted that her tiny nation might take some of the 434 asylum seekers trapped on a Norwegian cargo ship off Australia's Christmas Island.

The involvement of Australia's much smaller and less well-resourced neighbor came as the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, said 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 while in Durban, South Africa, for a conference on racism.

While arguments about the rights and wrongs of the standoff echoed around the region and the globe, the asylum seekers remained on the Tampa and Australian Prime Minister John Howard stood firm over his refusal to allow the human cargo to land on Australian soil.

Norway said on Thursday that talks with Australia were making progress.

Canberra is unhappy with a growing number of migrants seeking asylum in Australia.

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"Over the past 24 hours, I feel that we have achieved some progress which gives ground to a certain optimism," Foreign Ministry Thorbjoern Jagland told Norwegian news agency NTB.

"The signals from Australia are different than yesterday," Jagland said.

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, The Associated Press reported. Howard refused to speculate on what would happen next to the refugees, who are mostly from war-ravaged Afghanistan.

On Thursday, international aid agencies began lobbying the government for access to them.

The ship is still in Australian waters, floating five nautical miles off the coast of Christmas Island, an Australian territory 350 km (217 miles) south of Indonesia 2,000 km from the Australian mainland.

But the Tampa is only equipped to handle a crew of about 50, and the refugees were trying to escape the hot tropical temperatures and harsh sunlight in the area by sitting under tarpaulins strapped between huge containers on the deck.

Authorities on Christmas Island began ferrying more food to the ship by helicopter Thursday afternoon. Norway was incensed by the armed raid on the Tampa and has repeatedly called on Australia to accept the refugees.

A New Zealand spokesman said it would be "extrapolating" to take Clark's comments as a direct offer to take some of the mainly Afghan illegal immigrants who have been marooned off the Australian territory of Christmas island in the Indian Ocean since Sunday. But her words appeared to be the closest any national leader has yet come to actually offering to intervene in the impasse as Australia, Indonesia and Norway all refuse to take responsibility.

Howard told local television that the freighter was under the control of Australian troops, but he would not speculate as to whether the government would use force to remove the ship from Australian waters.

"I am not going to at the moment speculate about what might happen in the next little while," Howard told the Seven Network.

"But let me tell you that everything we have done has been on our advice quite legal and everything we do in the future will be quite legal."

Diplomatic resolutions

Australia has refused to allow the Tampa to dock since the container ship rescued the asylum seekers on Sunday from their sinking Indonesian fishing boat.

Howard's efforts to introduce new legislature designed to give legal backing to removing the ship from Australian waters, however, were dealt a blow after the bill was rejected by the upper house.

Unless the bill is passed, the government must seek alternative diplomatic resolutions to the refugee stand-off or risk the wrath of increasing international pressure.

Howard said that the best solution was for Indonesia to reverse its stand and allow the asylum seekers to land there.

"We have been trying for months to enlist the co-operation of Indonesia ... Thus far they have been unwilling to co-operate," he said.

Still in control

Claims the ship was sailing to Christmas Island to get medical attention to those on board were refuted by the Australian prmie minister
Claims the ship was sailing to Christmas Island to get medical attention to those on board were refuted by the Australian prmie minister  

The captain of the Tampa has so far refused Australia's demand to sail it to international waters, and reports in Australian media suggest he is still in control of the vessel.

The refugee stand-off comes at a delicate time for Australia's prime minister who faces a federal election later this year.

The government has come under attack in recent months over its refugee policy and many voters are increasingly unhappy about the large sums of money spent on housing and caring for thousands of asylum seekers that arrive to Australian shores each year.

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