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By Kerry Taylor, Peter Gregory and Craig Skehan

MELBOURNE, Australia (September 13, 2001 – The Age)---The poor Pacific island nation of Kiribati has contacted the Howard government with an offer to house asylum seekers intercepted in boats bound for Australia, senior officials on Nauru said yesterday.

The offer came as three Federal Court judges prepared to hear today an urgent appeal by the Federal Government against court orders requiring the return to Australia of 433 asylum seekers on board the HMAS Manoora.

Also yesterday, the government's military shield against people smuggling was tested again when another Indonesian fishing boat carrying up to 120 people tried to reach Australian waters -- taking the total of boat people to arrive in Australian territorial waters this week to 250.

The latest boat to be intercepted by the navy was spotted yesterday morning off Ashmore Reef trying to illegally cross into Australian waters, a spokesman for Defense Minister Peter Reith said. The boat was escorted by the navy to a buffer zone between Australian and international waters.

Last night it was about 35 nautical miles southwest of Ashmore Reef. The navy was in the vicinity and as the boat appeared "disorientated" it would provide charts and maps for the boat so it could make the journey back to Indonesia, a government spokeswoman said.

Justice Tony North ruled on Tuesday that the asylum seekers transferred from the Norwegian freighter, the Tampa, to the Manoora two weeks ago must be returned to Australia.

Chief Justice Michael Black said yesterday he expected the government's appeal to take a day to hear, but foreshadowed that a decision would not be delivered immediately.

Late yesterday, the Federal Court said Justices Bryan Beaumont and Robert French, who rank second and eighth in seniority of the 49 judges at the court, would join Justice Black on the full court bench in Melbourne.

Justice North had ruled that Australia had illegally detained the 433 boat people who were rescued by the Tampa off Christmas Island on August 26.

In a notice of appeal lodged soon after the ruling, the government said Justice North made a legal error by finding that Australian SAS troops detained the asylum seekers on the Tampa.

The appeal also challenged inferences and findings of fact made by Justice North and said he erred by ruling that Commonwealth powers did not support the detention and expulsion of the Tampa boat people.

It alleged Justice North erred by finding:

Sitting alone in yesterday's directions hearing, Justice Black said: "This is a very urgent case. It will be dealt with urgently." He ordered parties in the case to exchange written submissions by 5 p.m., with the exception of intervening party Amnesty International. It will have until today to obtain instructions from its head office in London.

Amnesty, Liberty Victoria and Melbourne solicitor Eric Vadarlis yesterday lodged cross-appeals, claiming Justice North was in error by refusing to let them seek injunctions except in relation to habeas corpus, an ancient court power preventing unlawful detention.

In court, Justice Black said a government affidavit estimated that the HMAS Manoora, with the asylum seekers and a further 237 picked up last weekend near Ashmore Reef, would reach Nauru on Monday.

Concerns have been expressed that Nauru, with a land area of only 21 square kilometers (8.4 square miles), would not be able to cope with even greater numbers of asylum seekers amid reports that other boatloads were bound for Ashmore Reef.

Officials in Nauru said the government of Kiribati made direct contact with the Australian government at the weekend, with the offer to take asylum seekers for assessment of their claims by United Nations representatives.

The government's new and continued hard stance against boat people means that this week two boats, carrying about 250 people, which have arrived in waters off Ashmore Reef, are under naval surveillance. The Indonesian Ratna-Mujia, which ran aground on the outer Ashmore Reef on Monday carrying 130 boat people, was still being repaired by naval officers yesterday so it could be turned around.

But a spokesman for Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock admitted the boat might be beyond repair.

For additional reports from The Age, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/The Age.

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