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Asylum-Seekers to go to New Zealand, Nauru - 2001-09-01

The 460 asylum-seekers stranded on a ship off the remote Australian outpost of Christmas Island are to go to New Zealand and the Pacific island nation of Nauru. The agreement breaks a six day diplomatic standoff between Australia, Norway and Indonesia.

Australia's Prime Minister John Howard has announced the breakthrough after talks with New Zealand's Prime Minister Helen Clark and Nauru's President Rene Harris.

The New Zealand government has agreed to take 150 of the asylum-seekers, mostly women, children and family groups.

Those found to be genuine refugees will be allowed to resettle in New Zealand permanently as part of its annual refugee quota. The remainder will go to Nauru, a small island nation about 8,300 kilometers east of Christmas Island.

Australia will take responsibility for transporting the asylum seekers to both countries, although it is not yet clear when or how that will happen. Australia will also cover Nauru's costs for its share of the operation. Those sent to Nauru and found to be genuine refugees will be resettled in third countries, including Australia.

The Australian Prime Minister John Howard says the agreement satisfies his government's requirement that the asylum seekers be processed outside of Australia. "I believe that this offers us a way of resolving fairly and humanely and consistent with the position Australia has taken all along," he said.

The Norwegian company, Wallenius Wilhelmsen, whose ship the Tampa rescued the group on Sunday, has welcomed the news. But its Australian representative Peter Dexter says the ship is in no condition to transport them. "We're absolutely delighted to hear the news, obviously we are concerned about how we disembark these people and the issues that now have to be addressed relative to getting them off the vessel," he said.

The agreement comes after Australia rejected a proposal from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees that would have allowed the group to disembark temporarily on Christmas Island.

The Norwegian freighter has been stranded a few miles from the island since Monday after Australia refused the boat entry into its waters. The Tampa rescued the asylum-seekers late Sunday when their own vessel began sinking.

Australian defense force patrols and aircraft will step up surveillance of Australian and international waters between Australia and Indonesia, to boost border security and stamp out the increase in illegal people smuggling, much of it via Indonesia.