CHRISTMAS ISLAND, Australia – Worried about a flow of asylum seekers, Australia sent troops aboard a cargo ship carrying 438 rescued refugees that defied orders and entered territorial waters Wednesday.
Prime Minister John Howard said the soldiers had secured the Norwegian ship the Tampa with no reports of violence.
Four nations continued to wrangle over who should take responsibility for the refugees — most of them Afghani — who were rescued Monday when the ferry illegally carrying them from Indonesia to Australia without visas began sinking.
Squeezed onto the Norwegian cargo ship under a harsh tropical sun off the coast of this remote Indian Ocean island, many of the refugees have refused to eat and were threatening to jump overboard unless Australia granted them entry.
Hans C. Bangsmoen, spokesman for the Wilhelm Wilhelmsen, the shipping company in Oslo that owns the Tampa, told state-run Norwegian radio that Australian military doctors and medical supplies had reached the vessel, but the situation remained critical. The refugees included dozens of children and some pregnant women.
Three boats ferried up to 30 soldiers — some wearing body armor — to the cargo ship Tampa as it neared the shore of Christmas Island. Seven Special Air Service soldiers returned to Christmas Island late Wednesday, but declined comment.
Locals watching the drama unfold at Flying Fish Cove harbor said they were disgusted with the government's reaction.
"The people here can't believe what's going on," said Gordon Thomson, a local councilor and union official. "It's absolute overkill. I think it's a political stunt."
In Melbourne, about 150 protesters chanted "SOS not SAS," and claimed the raid was a calculated move by the government to win support ahead of elections later this year.
The government-funded human rights commissioner appealed to Canberra to take the refugees in. Sev Ozdowski said Australia "can and should respond positively in accordance with its traditionally good humanitarian reputation."
"Nobody is lacking in compassion with genuine refugees," Howard said. But the prime minister added that none of the asylum seekers need urgent medical evacuation, and the government would not allow the vessel or its healthy refugees to land in Australia.
Indonesia reiterated Wednesday that it would not take in the refugees. Norway asked Australia to grant them asylum, as did Afghanistan ruling Taliban militia.
"These are poor people. Their problem is not political," Abdul Rehman Ottaq, director of the Taliban's Consular Department, told the official Bakhtar News Agency in Kabul. "According to our information, some of the people are very sick. This is a humanitarian crisis."
The ship's owners also were incensed by the military action.
"It's totally unheard of to use military force in a situation like this," Per Ronnevig, a spokesman for Wallenius Wilhelmsen told a Sydney radio station. "The Australian government is putting up a brand new standard in established international rules as far as behavior at sea is concerned."
Before the Tampa was boarded, O'Donnell said it was about four nautical miles from the island and had broken Australian territorial boundaries.
It remained close to the shore hours after the boarding.
It was not immediately clear how the Afghanis made it to Indonesia. But there has been a wave of asylum seekers who have washed up on Australian shores from Indonesia in recent months, prompting officials to believe that an organized group is bringing them over.
Canberra's tough line in refusing to accept the refugees comes as Howard seeks re-election later this year with many voters unhappy about the large sums of money spent housing and caring for the thousands of asylum seekers who arrive each year.
Christmas Island is Australia's most remote territory. The 15-mile-long island's population of 1,500 people survives mainly on revenue from a phosphate mine and tourism. It is 1,550 miles west of the nearest major Australian city, Darwin.
It is a magnet for illegal people smuggling gangs because of its closeness to Indonesia — just two days voyage by wooden fishing boat.
Australia also is a popular destination with refugees, mainly from the Middle East and South Asia, because they believe Australian courts are generous in granting visas.
Hundreds of other refugees who have arrived at Christmas Island in recent weeks have been flown by the air force to the Australian mainland where they are housed in detention centers, mainly in remote desert locations, until their asylum applications are processed.
Earlier, Howard had said Indonesia should do more to stop asylum seekers reaching Australia.
In Lombok, Indonesia, police said Wednesday that 251 migrants in detention were caught before boarding a boat bound for Australia, a three-day boat journey. Foreign Minister Hasan Wirayuda said about 2,000 refugees — mainly from Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq — were in detention throughout Indonesia. Other government officials said thousands of others were still at large.