CHRISTMAS ISLAND, Australia — Helicopters ferried food and blankets Sunday to hundreds of refugees stranded for a week on a Norwegian cargo ship as an Australian warship pulled up nearby to take them to Papua New Guinea.
The 438 refugees, mostly from Afghanistan, were to be transported today to Papua New Guinea, north of Australia, before continuing on to New Zealand or the Pacific island state of Nauru.
Prime Minister John Howard has refused to let the refugees set foot on Australian soil, even for a brief stopover at nearby Christmas Island — a stance that triggered a diplomatic storm and drew intense international criticism.
Howard put a military guard on the Norwegian cargo vessel, Tampa, last week. He wants the refugees transferred to the Australian navy transport ship, HMAS Manoora, today.
From Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, they were to be flown to New Zealand or Nauru, where their applications for political asylum would be processed. If they win asylum, the refugees will be redirected to third countries for resettlement — including Australia.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said Sunday that Australia assured the agency "its operation to resolve this complex and difficult situation will be carried out in a humane manner."
Norway denounced the plan, calling it a violation of international law.
As the Manoora maneuvered near the Tampa, several navy helicopters flew from the island with food, tarpaulins, blankets, life jackets and other supplies.
The refugees — mostly Afghans but also Sri Lankans and Pakistanis — have languished on the deck of the Tampa for a week.
after the cargo ship rescued them from a sinking Indonesian ferry run by people smugglers.
The refugees were told of Howard's plan Sunday, officials said.
"They are quite happy with the idea of something moving forward," Richard Danziger of the United Nations' International Organization for Migration said after boarding the Tampa and speaking with the refugees.
"They clearly would like to be off the ship as soon as possible."
He and Norway's ambassador to Australia, Ove Thorsheim, said the asylum seekers were being treated well and had no complaints about the conditions on board.
The crisis erupted earlier this week when Howard refused the Tampa permission to enter Australian waters with the refugees on board, saying he wanted to send a signal to people smugglers that Australia will not tolerate their illegal trade.
Over the past year, more than 4,000 migrants seeking asylum have been ferried to Australia from Indonesia by people-smuggling gangs.
The Tampa's captain defied the ban Wednesday and approached Christmas Island. He claimed those on board were sick and hungry and that some had threatened to jump overboard.
Howard ordered 50 elite commandos to storm the Tampa, a move that drew international censure.
After a six-day standoff, Howard negotiated a deal Saturday to send 150 of the refugees to New Zealand and the rest to Nauru, a small republic 4,500 miles east of Christmas Island.