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Afghan refugees await transfer

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SYDNEY, Australia — Prime Minister John Howard said Saturday he was seeking a practical solution to transfer more than 400 asylum seekers from a Norwegian cargo vessel in Australian territorial waters to New Zealand and Nauru.

But Howard gave no specifics on how the mainly Afghan boat people will be moved.

The weeklong refugee crisis moved closer to a settlement Saturday in a deal whereby New Zealand and the tiny Pacific island of Nauru agreed to take in the boat people that Australia and Indonesia have flatly refused to accept.

"I'm confident it can be done safely, obviously if they (the asylum seekers) cooperate, that makes it that much easier, and initial signs are they will work closely with the people involved," Howard told Australian's ABC.

The Norwegian vessel Tampa is lying close to Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean. While human-rights groups and other governments have condemned Australia for showing a lack of compassion, Howard is refusing to allow the mostly Afghan asylum seekers to be processed on Australian soil. "Whatever is the most practical (solution) is the one which will be deployed," Howard said.

"From the very beginning we have said they can't come onto Australian land territory and they can't be processed in Australia."

"I don't believe that what we are proposing is inhumane."

The Tampa is built to accomodate only up to 50 people and its owners Wallenius Wilhelmsen have said it would be illegal for it sail to another destination with the asylum seekers on board.

Howard has flatly rejected claims that his hardline stance was designed as a vote-winner with his conservative government neck-and-neck with opposition Labor ahead of an expected November or December election.