Subject: AP: East Timor open to receiving 56 New Zealand-bound asylum-seekers

East Timor open to receiving 56 New Zealand-bound asylum-seekers

Tue Jul 30, 7:54 AM ET

By JOSE BELO, Associated Press Writer

DILI, East Timor - Although it's one of Asia's poorest nations, East Timor ( news - web sites) is open to receiving 56 Sri Lankan asylum-seekers stranded on a boat in its capital's harbor, its acting foreign minister said Tuesday.

The Sri Lankans were attempting to make their way to New Zealand but were forced to abandon their journey Sunday after they ran out of food, water and fuel.

New Zealand has already said it would turn them away. But East Timor struck a more welcoming tone, saying it may allow them to remain in the newly independent country.

"It is our moral responsibility and we have to give them assistance," acting Foreign Minister Jorge Conceicao Teme told The Associated Press. "In the past, many East Timorese had to seek refuge in other countries."

East Timor, which only became independent in May this year after voting in 1999 to end a quarter of a century of brutal Indonesian rule, is largely reliant on foreign aid.

The asylum-seekers — all teenage and middle-age men with families in Sri Lanka — have been given food, medicine and blankets by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said Jake Moreland, a spokesman for the U.N. agency.

However, their 15-meter (50-foot) boat has not been allowed to dock in the harbor of East Timor's capital, Dili. The asylum seekers have told the United Nations ( news - web sites) that they want to continue on with their journey, Moreland said.

Moreland said the Sri Lankans had been sailing for more than one month in cramped living conditions. But he said they appeared in good condition, adding that the U.N. agency had started to process their applications for refugee status.

New Zealand said Tuesday it would refuse the Sri Lankans entry and urged East Timorese authorities to prevent the men from making the rough, three-week trip to New Zealand.

New Zealand, like Australia, has been reluctant to accept would-be refugees seeking a better life.

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