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Last Updated: Thursday, 30 September, 2004, 23:43 GMT 00:43 UK
Canada stalls China on refugees
A group of North Koreans try to enter the Canadian Embassy using ladders to scale a spiked fence around the compound in Beijing. Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2004
Some of the group camouflaged themselves as construction workers
Canada has said it has no plans to hand over a group of 44 North Koreans who stormed Beijing's Canadian embassy on Wednesday to the Chinese authorities.

They will be allowed to stay while Canada looks for a solution that guarantees their safety, a Canadian government spokesman said.

Canadian officials say the people want to go to South Korea.

Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister Shen Guofang says the group is in China illegally and should be handed over.

China treats North Koreans as illegal immigrants and deports any it catches.

But those who make it to foreign embassies are usually able to travel to a third country, often South Korea.

"We continue to work with the Chinese government to resolve this issue along the line of past resolutions," a Canadian government spokeswoman is quoted as saying by AFP news agency.

On past occasions, Canadian officials accompanied groups of asylum seekers out of China, she said.

"We hope Canada will hand them over to the Chinese side to handle, because we oppose this method of breaking into embassies, as it relates to the issue of the security of embassies in China," Mr Shen told reporters.

"We will also handle them in accordance with international law, domestic law and humanitarianism," he said.

The group had used ladders to scale the three-metre wall of the compound, and quilts to protect against the sharp spikes on the top of the wall.

Even so, some were injured in the process, and one person was evacuated for medical treatment on Wednesday evening, said Ian Burchett, a spokesman for the Canadian mission.

All 44 people are believed to be North Korean and the group includes 12 men, 26 women and six children, according to Mr Burchett.

He said they were given mattresses to sleep on overnight, and the embassy bought toys for the children.

Reluctant host

This is one of the largest groups ever to burst into a diplomatic compound in the Chinese capital, but it is far from an isolated incident.

In a similar case earlier this month, a group of 29 North Koreans entered a Japanese school in Beijing to demand asylum.

But such incidents are embarrassing for Beijing, Pyongyang's closest traditional ally.

"We think that rushing into embassies threatens the security of embassies in China, and we need to condemn this practice," said Mr Shen.

"We shouldn't turn a blind eye to this kind of behaviour, that's not right."

China has thrown heavy security around embassies to try to deter such asylum attempts.

But despite the risks, many North Koreans are still prepared to take the chance, and activists estimate that about 200,000 are currently hiding out in China.

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