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Australia halts new refugee boat

By CNN's Grant Holloway

Boatloads of refugees such as this had become a thing of the past.
Boatloads of refugees such as this had become a thing of the past.

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SYDNEY, Australia (CNN) -- Australia has intercepted its first boatload of asylum-seekers in more than 18 months, but the government says the arrival does not signal a likely new wave of refugees.

The decrepit wooden vessel, carrying about 50 people, is thought to have originated its voyage in Vietnam.

It was intercepted by Australian Customs officers off the western coast of Australia, near the town of Port Hedland.

A naval frigate, HMAS Canberra, is now en route to Port Hedland to pick up the asylum-seekers and transport them to a detention camp on the Australian territory of Christmas Island which lies in the Indian Ocean just south of Indonesia.

The asylum-seekers are mainly men, although some women and children were also on board the vessel.

Australia launched a major crackdown on asylum-seekers about two years ago to stem a growing tide of boats sent by people-smuggling networks carrying refugees, mainly from Afghanistan, Iraq and the Middle East.

Australian Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock told Australia's Sky News network Wednesday this attempt to gain entry appeared to be an "opportunistic" bid, rather than represent part of a new concerted people-smuggling operation.

"We believe them to be Vietnamese but that is not absolutely certain," Ruddock said.

Detention illegal

He said those on board the boat would be detained under Australia's Migration Act on Christmas Island where their identity would be determined and their claims for asylum assessed.

Two other boats headed for Australia, also believed to be from Vietnam, have been intercepted in Indonesian waters in recent months.

The Indonesian authorities managed to persuade those on board to abandon their voyage and return home.

Australia has come in for international criticism over its handling of asylum seekers, with human rights groups saying the detention conditions are unnecessarily harsh.

An Australian court last month ruled that the detention of children indefinitely was illegal, but the government is appealing that decision.

More than 100 children are currently held in Australian-run detention camps, many of them on the tiny Pacific island nation of Nauru.

Amnesty International leaders from 12 Asia Pacific nations on Tuesday marched on the Sydney home of Prime Minister John Howard demanding the children be freed.


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