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UN Chief in East Timor: No to Asylum Seekers

The head of the U.N. mission in East Timor says there is no possibility of East Timor accepting a ship carrying more than 400 asylum seekers, mostly from Afghanistan. The group has been stuck on a ship off Australia for the past five days.

The U.N. chief in East Timor, Sergio Vieira de Mello, says he discussed the option of accepting asylum seekers with top U.N. officials, East Timorese leaders and Australia's foreign minister, Alexander Downer. "I have been informed by Minister Downer that the East Timor option, which was being looked at among others, will not be pursued," he says.

About 460 asylum seekers, most of them from Afghanistan, have been stranded aboard a ship off Australia's remote Christmas Island. The ship, a Norwegian freighter, had rescued the asylum seekers from an Indonesia boat that was sinking. It is believed the group had intended to enter Australia without visas. But Australia did not allow the freighter to dock at Christmas Island.

Christmas Island is 2,400 kilometers northwest of the Australian mainland. Indonesia and Christmas Island are both frequently used transit points for people seeking to enter Australia illegally.

Mr. de Mello says the United Nations in East Timor would have gladly played a role in offering shelter to the asylum seekers, if asked. But he says he is relieved the group will not be arriving in East Timor. "We have enough problems of our own," he says. "I wouldn't have wanted to be stuck here with a group of people that no one else would accept and who presumably would feel frustrated after a while. I don't need that right now."

East Timor is currently being administered by the United Nations as it prepares for independence early next year. Votes are now being counted after East Timor held its first free election on Thursday.

Earlier in the day, East Timor's acting foreign minister, Jose Ramos Horta, said the fledgling country would consider giving temporary shelter to the asylum seekers. "And we concur, the East Timorese side, that if richer countries in the region cannot resolve this problem, we Timorese can not also turn our back on refugees on the high seas," he says. "And we say, in spite of our poverty, we offer our country as a place of asylum and temporary shelter until a third country is found for them."

The United Nations, Australia, Norway and other countries are still discussing where the asylum seekers will be allowed to land. The government of New Zealand has said it would consider accepting some of the group.