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End in sight to Nauru standoff

SYDNEY, Australia -- Tensions have again flared between officials and mostly Iraqi asylum seekers refusing to be unloaded from an Australian navy ship docked at the Pacific island of Nauru.

Two boatloads of asylum seekers disembarked from the Australian troop carrier HMAS Manoora early Wednesday, according to Associated Press news agency.

The disembarkation raised hopes of an end to the two-week standoff by 217 boat people who have refused to go ashore at Nauru so their applications for refugee status can be processed.

But Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio reported that Iraqi and Palestinian asylum seekers aboard a third landing craft at Nauru's main harbor had refused to land for processing in a detention camp. Asia
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Australia's tide of refugees  

The standoff lasted for more than two hours before negotiators convinced the group to move ashore onto buses bound for the camp, the ABC reported.

Nauru -- a tiny Pacific island state of just 12,000 people living on a mere 21 sq. kilometers (8 sq. miles) -- agreed to take the boat people after the Australian government refused them entry in a tough crackdown against people smuggling rings and asylum seekers.

New Zealand has also accepted some of the asylum seekers.

In return, the Nauru government received A$20 million (US$9.9 million) in aid from Australia.

Attractive option

However, most of the Iraqi and Palestinian asylum seekers had remained on the Manoora in protest against not being admitted to Australia, where they had been heading on a decrepit Indonesian boat operated by people smugglers, before the Australian navy picked them up.

Australia has been attractive to potential asylum seekers, perceived as a free and fair place to make a new start in life. Also, many refugees have been told by people smugglers that Australia accepts asylum seekers easily.

Leaders of the group that refused to be unloaded Wednesday had indicated their wish to talk to journalists, who were being kept behind the police exclusion zone at the landing point.

The standoff was closely monitored by helmeted Australian servicemen, Australian Protective Services officers and Nauru officials, ABC said.

The protesting group of asylum seekers join hundreds more boat people from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka at the makeshift refugee camp.

Armed escort

On Monday Australian Defense Minister Peter Reith authorized the military to forcibly remove 12 men believed to be leaders of the refugees.

But the Nauru government on Tuesday refused to allow them ashore if they were being forced by Australian soldiers.

After a day of discussions, where Nauru continued to insist refugees should not be forced off the ship, further attempts at disembarkation continued.

"My advice is that the Nauruan government are happy with the agreement and further people are being taken off this morning," Reith said Wednesday.

He said the reason people were being escorted off by soldiers was only to ensure disembarkation went smoothly.

"That is simply to ensure there is no unnecessary disruption to the process and that people can be landed safely," Reith said.


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