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Asylum children 'thrown into sea' off Australia

CANBERRA, Australia (CNN) -- Would-be asylum seekers aboard a boat intercepted on its way to Australia have thrown children into the sea in protest at efforts to block their path, Australian authorities say.

When the boat was ordered to turn back, some asylum seekers jumped overboard after their children into the water in what Australian Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock called "one of the most disturbing practices I've come across."

The boat people were wearing life jackets but Ruddock said they acted "with the intention of putting us under duress."

All the boat people were rescued and returned to their vessel.

Earlier the Australian navy's HMAS Adelaide intercepted the boat flying an Indonesian flag about 120 nautical miles (200 km) from Christmas Island, a remote Australian territory in the Indian Ocean.

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The standoff, involving about 200 people, most of them Iraqis, ended when the Adelaide escorted the boat out of Australian waters and observed it slowly steam away.

Christmas Island sits between Australia and Indonesia and was the scene of a confrontation in August after the Norwegian freighter, Tampa, rescued hundreds of would-be refugees from a ferry in distress.

Prime Minister John Howard refused to allow the Tampa's human cargo to land and on Friday called a national election on the strength of his renewed popularity among Australians who want to end to the trickle of illegal sea-bound immigrants to their country.

The popularity of Howard's actions in Australia contrasts with international condemnation from other governments and United Nations bodies.

Howard, whose conservative Liberal Party is seeking a third term on the slogan "Putting Australia First," sent elite troops to the Tampa, introduced laws barring would-be refugees, and contracted the impoverished Pacific island of Nauru to become a staging post for asylum-seekers.

Under tough new laws pushed through parliament late last month, the Christmas, Cocos and Ashmore Islands, off Australia's remote northwest coast, are not considered Australian territories for migration purposes.

Ruddock was quoted Sunday as saying the latest boat people had entered Australian waters well-prepared.

He described their actions as premeditated.

In the past year more than 5,000 asylum seekers, mostly fleeing strife in the Middle East, and increasingly from Afghanistan, have come by boat via Indonesia with the help of people smuggling gangs.

Nauru has so far accepted almost 700 would-be refugees, 130 have since gone to New Zealand and another 270 are in transit.

The exercise in deterrence is coming at a huge financial cost for Australia and resistance is building among Nauru's tiny population to accepting any more refugees.


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