CHRISTMAS ISLAND, Australia — Hundreds of mainly Afghan asylum seekers remained at the center of an international row Tuesday with three countries bickering over who was responsible for finding them a home.

Indonesia said again Tuesday it took no responsibility for the 438 boat people plucked from a sinking wooden ferry off its coast Sunday by a Norwegian-registered freighter.

The asylum seekers were on their way to Australia from Indonesia and were rescued just in time from the crippled vessel.

Indonesia deepened the confusion over the saga by first refusing entry to the freighter on Monday, accepting it Tuesday, then refusing it again later the same day.

The freighter's owners said there were not enough provisions or safety equipment for the asylum seekers to make the trip to the nearest Indonesian port from its current anchorage off Australia's Christmas Island.

Norway, the ship's sovereign registrar whose laws apply while at sea, has also refused to have anything to do with the affair.

And Australia, a country built on immigration and which has never before refused access to boat people, says it will help — but only to ensure the boat people go somewhere else.

Many of the asylum seekers have began a hunger strike, and the freighter's captain has warned of increased tension and worsening health conditions aboard his vessel, the Tampa.

A team of Australian doctors was helicoptered aboard the vessel on Tuesday following reports of illness.

Australian troops also landed on Christmas Island to help distribute humanitarian relief — the first of a contingent of 120 personnel expected by the end of the week. A navy frigate was also on its way from the west Australian city of Perth.

"Quite a lot of gear has come on trucks from the airport and gone into a large sports hall," said a Reuters photographer at the scene.

Australia has spurned pleas by the increasingly desperate human cargo for permission to land in a warning to rising numbers of illegal immigrants attempting to get into the country — many of whom use the Indonesian archipelago as a staging post.

But the move, ahead of a national election later this year, has raised accusations that the country is becoming a stubborn white fortress.

"I think the reversion to the old view of Australia . . . will be pretty swift," said political analyst Robert Manne. "Australia as a white fortress and a pretty selfish one."

The freighter's captain Arne Rinnan said he believed the boat people's threat to jump off if the ship moved away from Christmas Island, 217 miles south of Indonesia's Java and 931 miles west of Australia.

"They will jump overboard as soon as we turn around from Christmas Island and they will go crazy, whatever that means," Rinnan told Reuters from the bridge of his ship.

"The tension is increasing down there. As long as they see Christmas Island they are behaving quietly," he said. "At the first sign of violence we will lock ourselves in the accommodation. We are seamen not fighters. We have no weapons on board. This is not a warship."

A spokesman for the boat people said tension was high.

"A lot of people here have been in prison and persecuted in their country and they do not have any hope," Mohammad Ali, seeking asylum from Afghanistan, told Reuters.

Ali was a teacher but when the Taliban closed schools for women he lost his job. He said he found himself in danger as the Taliban imposed strict fundamentalist Islamic laws.

When Ali decided to flee, he took the path traveled by thousands of asylum seekers — overland to Pakistan, a flight to Malaysia, and boats to Indonesia's Sumatra and Java islands.

"All the people here are educated people and they have political problems in Afghanistan," he said.

Many of those on board were suffering dysentery, fatigue and dehydration after days at sea after leaving Indonesia.

A spokesman for the ship's owner said toilets were set up in an empty shipping container and blankets handed out but conditions on board were awful.

"There are many sick people aboard and there is an acute need for medicine," spokesman Hans Christian Bangsmoen told Reuters.

The saga on the container ship follows a wave of attempts by Middle Eastern and Afghani asylum seekers to escape hardship at home and enter Australia.

Australian churches, refugee advocacy and human rights groups have condemned the decision to turn away the Tampa saying it was contrary to international obligations to protect people in need.

"The public mood here seems to me to have gone more and more nasty, to the point where both the government and the opposition are absolutely happy with a system of real abuse of human rights," Manne told Reuters.

But elsewhere, the decision met support.

"Australia is entitled to insist, as far as it can, that its immigration programme remains orderly," Melbourne's The Age newspaper said in an editorial.