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Wednesday, 29 August, 2001, 10:22 GMT 11:22 UK
Australian troops board refugee ship
Refugees on the Tampa
More than 400 refugees are on board the ship
Australian troops have boarded a Norwegian ship carrying over 400 refugees, after it defied orders banning it from entering Australian territorial waters.

The SAS personnel on the vessel have put it to the captain that the appropriate thing would be for the captain to return to international waters

John Howard,
Australian prime minister
The Tampa had been lying off the remote Australian territory of Christmas Island since Monday, with its human cargo of 438 mainly Afghan refugees.

Many of them are on hunger strike and have threatened to riot or jump overboard if they are not allowed to land in Australia.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard said the troops had told the Tampa to head back to international waters, but he admitted the captain seems disinclined to move, which "creates, of course, a very serious situation".

The ship's owners have accused Australia of "piracy", saying it had no right to board the ship because it represents a sovereign territory of Norway.

Three high-speed Australian navy boats intercepted the Tampa after it crossed the 12-mile (20km) territorial limit, and about 60 Special Air Services troops are now on board.

Unprecedented situation

Mr Howard said that the Tampa had entered Australian territorial waters despite an earlier undertaking not to do so if medical assistance was given.

Refugee boat draws near the Tampa
The refugees were picked up on Sunday
"The SAS personnel on the vessel have put it to the captain that the appropriate thing would be for the captain to return to international waters," he said.

Mr Howard, who described the situation as difficult and unprecedented, said: "Nobody is lacking in compassion with genuine refugees."

The BBC's Michael Peschardt in Darwin says the Australian military has said control of the ship remains with the captain and crew, although there is little doubt the special forces would act should the vessel try to approach land.

According to Australian officials, the soldiers are there to help coordinate efforts to bring food and medicine to those on board.

They are also there in case the crew needs protection, officials said.


But the Australian action has angered the ship's owners, Oslo-based company Wallenius Wilhelmsen, who warned they would take legal action against Canberra if Australia forced the ship back into international waters.

Australian doctors who have boarded the vessel say only a handful needed medical attention.

Aerial view of the Tampa shows some of the rescued refugees on board
There are conflicting reports about the condition of those on board
But company regional director Peter Dexter said the Captain, Arne Rinnan, had ignored orders to move because the health of the asylum seekers was worsening.

"He considers it impractical and unsafe to do so given the responsibility he has for the people on board," Mr Dexter was quoted as saying by Reuters news agency.

The Tampa, a container ship, was built to accommodate 40 people. It now has nearly 500 on board.

Christmas Island harbour masters Don O'Donnell said the Tampa was stationary offshore and no one has left since the troops boarded it.

"I am looking at it out my window and it's about five miles off and holding position. It is still in Australian territorial waters" Mr O'Donnell said.

Riot threat

The Tampa picked up the refugees on Sunday, as the wooden Indonesian vessel carrying them was on the point of sinking.

They have demanded to be taken to Australia, but Sydney says that they should be returned to Indonesia.

After initially refusing to accept them, Indonesia said on Tuesday that it would allow the ship to land there.

But the refugees threatened to riot if the Tampa sailed out of sight of Christmas Island.

Conditions on board are said to be terrible, with outbreaks of dysentery and scabies.

The ship's captain was reported to have sent a distress signal late on Tuesday appealing for medical help after 15 people fell unconscious on its deck.


Australia has organised an operation to provide emergency food and medical supplies to the refugees, but it remains adamant in its refusal to allow the ship to dock.

The UN's refugee agency is urging Australia, Indonesia and Norway to cooperate to resolve the asylum seekers' plight.

UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond said their request for asylum should be given a thorough examination.

The BBC's Michael Peschardt
"Tension is clearly growing"
Phillip Ruddock, Australia's Immigration Minister
"The health of the refugees is better than expected"
Per Ronnovig, spokesman for the Norwegian vessel
"We are not very happy about the situation"
Jennifer Clark, UN High Commissioner for refugees
"We have suggested that they meet"


The journey

Life in a foreign land

The way ahead


See also:

28 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
Australia is refugees' goal
29 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
Spotlight on maritime conventions
29 Aug 01 | South Asia
Why Afghans seek hope abroad
27 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
Tampa captain's tale of woe
13 Jul 01 | Asia-Pacific
Australia condemns vigilantes
25 Apr 01 | Asia-Pacific
Australia may take fewer refugees
05 Apr 01 | Asia-Pacific
Australia's detention camps criticised
31 Mar 01 | Asia-Pacific
Australia's migrant policy under fire
12 Feb 01 | Asia-Pacific
Boost for anti-immigrant party
22 Jan 01 | Asia-Pacific
Immigrants riot in Australian camp
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