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Trying For Refugee Asylum Deal

Norway said on Friday it was willing to take in some of more than 400 mainly Afghan asylum seekers crammed on a freighter off Australia's Christmas Island, signaling a possible breakthrough in the impasse.

The offer came as Australia stuck to its guns in refusing to allow the 433 asylum seekers to leave the Norwegian freighter which plucked them from a sinking ferry on Sunday and tried to deliver them to Christmas Island, despite a plea from the United Nations High Commission On Refugees to allow the mostly-Afghan refugees to dock temporarily.

The appeal was issued as the agency gathered working-level officials from Australia, Indonesia and Norway for the first time to propose a three-point plan to get the passengers off the Norwegian cargo ship Tampa as quickly as possible.

"The plan would begin with first, temporary disembarkation for humanitarian reasons on Christmas Island...The people have been aboard far too long and that island is the most logical place to go for the time being," said Ron Redmond, spokesman for the Geneva-based agency.

Inside Afghanistan
Most of the refugees are Afghanis. Read CBS News Anchor Dan Rather's series of reports for background:

Part One: Aftermath Of A War Of Terror

Part Two: Afghanistan's Veil Of Oppression

Part Three: An Afghan In America

Earlier, both Norway and Australia had rejected an offer from East Timor to temporarily shelter the asylum seekers on the grounds the country did not have a proper government in place.

Timor, currently administered by the U.N., on Thursday held its first democratic elections after centuries of colonial rule and has a huge refugee problem of its own.

Asked if he was relieved the asylum seekers would not be coming to Timor, the U.N's administrator, Sergio Vieira de Mello, said:

"In a sense yes...we have enough problems of our own."

The 44,000-ton Norwegian vessel Tampa on Friday remained just offshore the island, which lies 217 miles south of Indonesia and 930 miles west of Australia.

The asylum seekers huddled against a scorching sun under tarpaulin stretched between empty containers against the harsh sun.

Crack Australian Secial Air Service troops — who stormed the vessel on Wednesday to prevnt any of them from trying to swim to shore — kept close guard.

Following a fresh count by the troops, officials revised the number of asylum seekers to 433 — including 21 women and 44 children. The Norwegian freighter also plucked six Indonesian crew from the rickety ferry they were on.

Despite a rising torrent of international indignation, Australia as remained determined not to take in any of the would-be refugees.

Prime Minister John Howard, accused by some of feeding on an ugly underbelly of xenophobia ahead of a tough end-of-year election, defended Australia's stance.

"We are sympathetic to their conditions, we have acted to improve their conditions but we obviously would like to see the matter resolved in a way that is consistent with Australian interests," he told reporters.

The armed forces have supplied food, personal care items, portable toilets and shelter from the baking tropical heat, he said. A doctor has attended to those on board.

Howard, who spoke with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Thursday, is sticking to his view that Australia — which received less than 5,000 boat people last year but accepts annually more than 10,000 refugees formally resettled by the U.N. — had to defend itself against people smugglers.

Australia, which has taken in thousands of Vietnamese boat people and other Asians since the 1970s and welcomes about 100,000 new migrants every year, argues the boat people should go back to Indonesia, the last port of embarkation.

But Indonesia has refused to take the Afghani, Pakistani and Sri Lankan asylum seekers — and President Megawati Sukarnoputri has so far not returned Howard's calls.

The Tampa's captain, Arne Rinnan, has refused to move the vessel and its owners say it is not legally permitted to carry so many people.

The arrival of the Australian navy frigate HMAS Arunta later on Friday will add to the tension. The Arunta is believed to be carrying a spare crew with skills to move the vessel.

Initially Howard had strong public support but there were signs that this had started to crack.

"Time to end the sorry saga," said an editorial in the Australian Financial Review.

"The time has come for the government to cut its losses before it embarks on even higher-risk gambits — like trying to tow the Norwegian freighter into the open sea."

Elsewhere the criticism was just as strong.

The president of the European Parliament, Nicole Fontaine, appealed to Australia to show compassion and be conscious of its "humanitarian traditions."

A group representing Australia's Muslims — who make up 600,000 of 19 million population — called Howard's stance "medieval"

Ironically early Afghan migrants to Australia — in the 1830s and 1840s — are held up as heroes n the country. Mainly camel drivers, their hardy skills helped open up the outback.

©MMI CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Reuters Limited contributed to this report

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