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SYDNEY, Australia (September 25, 2001 - Sydney Morning Herald/PINA Nius Online)---The Nauru government says it will not agree to any attempt by Australia to force Iraqi and Palestinian asylum seekers from an Australian Navy ship, the HMAS Manoora, waiting off Nauru.

"Jesus, they can't drag them off; there are women and kids on the ship," Nauru's President Rene Harris told the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper. "I believe they will not do it."

The Australian government has signaled that it is considering using soldiers to remove 217 asylum seekers refusing to go ashore to a detention center in Nauru, the Sydney Morning Herald reported. The troop carrier is sitting a few hundred meters off the island.

Financially struggling Nauru agreed to allow the asylum seekers to be landed there for processing and in return has been given AU$ 20 million (US$ 9,821,600) in aid from Australia. The use of Nauru marked the beginning of Australia's crackdown to stop thousands of asylum seekers that people smugglers are trying to land on Australian shores.

Australian Defense Minister Peter Reith last night reiterated Australia's determination that the asylum seekers should leave the ship: "They need to come off," he was quoted by the Sydney Morning Herald as saying.

For more than a week 190 Iraqis and 27 Palestinians have refused to leave the Manoora and are demanding to be taken to Australia, the newspaper reported.

President Harris said he received a phone call from Mr. Reith yesterday, but the use of force was not specifically discussed.

He told the Sydney Morning Herald: "It was not up to me to pre-empt such a decision, but I believe it would be wrong. No government could do that."

President Harris urged the asylum seekers to join several hundred others from the Manoora who have gone to the Australian-built detention center in the interior of the island.

But he wanted to stress that the Nauru government would "not agree to the use of force to disembark the asylum seekers."

Earlier, a senior Nauru government official told the Sydney Morning Herald: "The word has come down to me that we would not accept anybody who is forced off the ship.''

Some Nauru opposition MPs are threatening to try to oust President Harris through a vote of no confidence. The arrival of any "hostile" asylum seekers could be used to fuel such a bid, the Sydney Morning Herald said.

A spokesman for Australia's Immigration Minister said he was not concerned about the Nauru government's statement.

"I think everybody would prefer it [force] didn't happen ... you can understand if the Nauru Government doesn't want that to be used as a first option."

The Sydney Morning Herald said Nauru's neighbor, Kiribati, has also offered to take asylum seekers in exchange for aid from Australia. But it is unclear whether that offer would extend to those refusing to leave the Manoora.

The head of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees team on Nauru, Gregory Balke, when asked if the commission could refuse to process the asylum claims of anyone forced off the Manoora, said:

"Any involuntary disembarkation would be regarded as a serious incident. We would immediately seek guidance from our regional office and from our headquarters in Geneva.''

The commission yesterday began interviewing those who have left the Manoora, mostly Afghanis transferred from the Norwegian ship MV Tampa, to determine their asylum claims.

One hundred and fifty people from the Tampa still on the Manoora are due to be flown to New Zealand today or tomorrow, the Sydney Morning Herald said.

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

Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) Website: 

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