Subject: U.N. says Australia won't send refugees to E.Timor

U.N. says Australia won't send refugees to E.Timor

DILI, East Timor, Aug 31 (Reuters) - Australia has decided against sending more than 400 stranded asylum seekers to East Timor, the head of the U.N. administration in the tiny territory said on Friday.

East Timor -- which is run by the United Nations until it reaches independence next year -- had offered to give temporary refuge to the asylum seekers, who have been on a Norwegian freighter off Australia's Christmas Island for nearly a week since being refused entry by Australia.

"I have been informed by (Australian Foreign) Minister (Alexander) Downer that the East Timor option which was being looked at, among others, will not be pursued," U.N. administration chief Sergio Vieira de Mello told reporters.

The refugees had been trying to sneak into Australia from Indonesia, but had to be rescued from their sinking boat last Sunday.

The plight of the asylum seekers has turned into an international standoff between Australia, Norway and Indonesia.

Australia's tiny neighbours offer face-saving end to refugee crisis

CHRISTMAS ISLAND, Australia, Aug 31 (AFP) - Australia appeared to be easing towards a face-saving solution to its crisis over a shipload of stranded boatpeople after offers of help from its neighbours New Zealand and East Timor.

The two countries both indicated Friday they would consider offering safe haven to the 460 asylum seekers aboard the Norwegian-flagged Tampa as it drifts off this Australian territory in the Indian Ocean.

Prime Minister John Howard, bolstered by massive domestic support, continued to defy ever-growing global outrage over his refusal to allow the ship to bring its cargo of human despair into Australia.

Howard made strenuous to get through to Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri for talks on the crisis, but she failed to return his calls. Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock are expected to go to Jakarta next week to try to persuade the government to accept the refugees back into Indonesia.

They started their ill-fated journey in Indonesia, and after being rescued from their sinking Indonesian-crewed vessel off the coast of Indonesia forced the captain of the Tampa to take them to the Australian territory.

Canberra also appealed for assistance to the other countries, including New Zealand, and asked the United Nations, which adminsters East Timor, if it would accommodate the boatpeople while the claims are processed if Australia paid the costs.

New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark responded Friday saying Wellington would like to be part of the solution.

"We have a relatively small refugee quota a year because we don't have a big population, but we're prepared to look, and I hope others are prepared to look," she said.

However, Clark said she believed the boatpeople were Indonesia's responsibility.

East Timor's Foreign Minister Jose Ramos Horta said his country, now in the middle of its first election, would certainly look "favourably" on the Australian proposal.

East Timor has large facilities built to house returning refugees who fled the territory during a violent rampage by pro-Indonesian militias after it voted for independence in 1999.

Ramos Horta said while Indonesia and Australia had primary responsibility for the asylum-seekers, "at the same time we want to be true to our own history."

The Nobel laureate said his own people had "benefited enormously from international generosity" during their recent bloody history and thousands of its refugees had been "welcomed, sheltered and fed particularly by Australia and Portugal."

However, Downer appeared later to back away from an East Timor solution saying: "We are having discussions with a number of countries. It's much less likely to be East Timor than somewhere else."

He said discussion were progressing well now with Norway after some initial difficulties and he expected further talks with both Norway and Indonesia later on Friday.

UN human rights chief Mary Robinson said it was worrying that a country with a "fine tradition" like Australia had not done more to help the hundreds of refugees stranded just off its territory.

The United States also added its voice to calls for a swift solution, urging Australia, Norway and Indonesia to resolve their stand-off.

But Howard, renowned in Australia for his stubbornness, showed no sign of wavering and insisted he would not back down.

"I believe it is in Australia's national interest that we draw a line on what is increasingly becoming an uncontrollable number of illegal arrivals in this country," he told commercial radio.

"My starting point for that strong position is that this country is the second most generous in the world after Canada in taking refugees."

The freighter's captain Arne Rinnan said he remained "100 percent in control" of his ship and had no intention of moving from his current location, four nautical miles from Christmas Island.

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