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PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (Oct. 2, 2002 - PINA Nius Online)---Air Niugini's loss has been Air Nauru and Air Vanuatu's gain flying asylum seekers from the Manus Islands camp in Papua New Guinea.

Air Niugini could have earned up to $1 million but turned down the offer, saying it had no spare aircraft to do the job.

Government officials yesterday confirmed Air Nauru and Air Vanuatu filled the vacuum, accepting charters from the International Office of Migration to airlift the refugees and received almost $1 million between them.

Air Nauru earlier flew 87 asylum seekers out of Manus Province to New Zealand. Yesterday at 1:30 a.m. Air Vanuatu airlifted another 49 refugees to Sydney, Australia.

Another 40 asylum seekers were flown out in an Australian military C-130 Hercules aircraft early on Monday morning to a refugee camp in Nauru.

A spokesman for Air Niugini said, "Unfortunately, we did not have the capacity to provide aircraft during those times."

But one government official said in Port Moresby yesterday that "Air Niugini would have been paid in U.S. dollars and we can't understand why they refused the offer."

The asylum seekers had been held in Manus for processing under Australia's so-called "Pacific Solution."

Faced with an influx of mainly Afghan and Middle Eastern asylum seekers trying to reach Australia on people smuggling boats, Australia used its military to stop them reaching its shores. It made arrangements with Nauru and Papua New Guinea to set up processing centers, where the asylum seekers were held while their applications for refugee status were decided.

Workers at the Lombrum Naval Base refugee camp in Manus said yesterday that asylum seekers being flown out "looked happy" as they boarded the aircraft to Australia.

The workers said the Lombrum refugee camp now looks almost deserted with only 87 refugees remaining. The deadline to hold refugees there is Oct. 11.

Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) Website:  

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