CANBERRA, Australia – A Norwegian cargo ship that rescued 434 refugees from a crippled Indonesian ferry drifted in the Indian Ocean on Monday as Australia, Indonesia and Norway bickered over its fate.
Australia, which is facing a rising tide of asylum seekers, refused the ship entry, and Indonesia said it also might not allow it into its waters.
"The government ... has indicated to the ship's captain that it does not have permission to enter Australian territorial waters," Australian Prime Minister John Howard said.
Each year, thousands of refugees and asylum seekers — mainly from the Middle East and Central Asia — make their way overland to Indonesia, where smugglers use local fishing boats and ferries to take them to Australia.
Howard said it was up to Indonesia and Norway to resolve the impasse, but Norway in turn called on Australia and Indonesia to decide what to do about it.
"We regard this as a very complicated matter and we cannot let the countries in the region shy away from their responsibilities," Norwegian Foreign Ministry spokesman Karsten Klepsvik said.
Indonesia said it reserved the right to reject the asylum seekers.
"If Australian authorities refused because they don't have proper documents, we don't see any reason to let them in," Indonesian foreign affairs spokesman Wahid Supriyadi said. "We find it hard to believe that the ferry departed from Indonesian waters. Refugees normally travel on small boats."
The cargo ship Tampa's captain, Arne Rinnan, told a radio station in Perth, Australia that it was drifting 12 miles off Christmas Island, a remote Australian outpost 220 miles south of the Indonesian island of Java.
Rinnan said he was worried about the health of two of the asylum seekers, one of whom had suffered an apparent heart attack and another who had a broken leg.
His ship came to the rescue of the stricken Indonesian ferry KM Palapa 1 early Monday after it signaled for help, Australian rescue authorities said. Afghan and Sri Lankan passengers insisted their rescuers take them to Australia and not back to Indonesia.
Rinnan told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio that he was frightened and felt threatened by five men who demanded they be taken to Christmas Island.
Howard said Australia would provide food, medical supplies and other humanitarian aid to the asylum seekers and would also offer financial assistance to Indonesia to take them back.
Boatloads of asylum seekers have arrived on Christmas Island in growing numbers in recent weeks, straining resources on the remote and sparsely populated outpost.
The government has been forced to pay for flights to transfer the refugees to the mainland, where they are housed in detention centers until their asylum applications are processed.