- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 4, 2001

CHRISTMAS ISLAND, Australia — Australia stood by its pledge to keep hundreds of asylum-seekers off its soil yesterday, ferrying them instead to a warship to be taken to Papua New Guinea, then Nauru and New Zealand.

Two barges and two inflatable speedboats took the immigrants to the HMAS Manoora from the Norwegian cargo ship, Tampa, which rescued them last week from a sinking Indonesian ferry.

Norway, which argued with Australia for a week over who should take the immigrants, said Australia was setting a shameful precedent by shunting the refugees off on other countries.

The Australians "have ducked the demands of humanitarian law, and that is very unfortunate and can have serious consequences if this bad example is followed by other countries so people on the run have nowhere to go," Norwegian Foreign Minister Thorbjoern Jagland said in an interview with Norwegian state radio, NRK.

"If this also means that ships don't dare pick up people in distress at sea, the situation would be extremely serious," he said.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard said his country is being swamped by illegal immigrants and needed to take a stand.

Yesterday, Australian authorities arrested four Indonesian crew members of the ferry who were also saved by the Tampa. Police planned to file immigrant smuggling charges against them.

The more than 430 refugees — mostly Afghans, but a few Sri Lankans and Pakistanis as well — were divided into groups before walking down the Tampa's gangway and being taken to the warship off the coast of Australia's remote Christmas Island.

With the 2-1/2-hour operation completed at sunset, the Tampa departed for Singapore. The Manoora was scheduled to leave later for Papua New Guinea's capital, Port Moresby, five days away.

From there, they will be flown to either the central Pacific island state of Nauru or New Zealand, where their cases will be processed.

"The asylum seekers were calm," said Richard Danziger of the International Organization for Migration, who observed the transfer. "It was obviously planned very carefully by the Australian defense force, and it went well."

The transfer was given the go-ahead after a federal court lifted an injunction barring the transfer of the refugees. However, they cannot be moved from the ship to Papua New Guinea soil until the conclusion of the court hearing, expected tomorrow or Thursday.

If the court finds that Australia must accept them and process their requests for refugee status, the Manoora would be ordered back to Australia.

The weeklong standoff prompted unprecedented criticism of Australia from other countries and the chief of the United Nations.

When the Tampa's captain defied Australia and entered Australian territorial waters seeking humanitarian aid for the refugees, Mr. Howard ordered 50 commandos to storm the ship. Critics said he was pandering to voters who resent the rising cost of illegal immigration.

About 150 of the boat people will go to New Zealand for processing. The rest will go to Nauru, where representatives of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees will assess their asylum applications.

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