Wed, Oct 01, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Australia buys back ship full of stranded sheep

REUTERS , CANBERRA

Australia has bought back more than 50,000 sheep stranded at sea since Saudi Arabia rejected them on health grounds more than a month ago and will bring them home if last-ditch talks to unload them fail.

Agriculture Minister Warren Truss said on Tuesday Australia had agreed to pay the Saudi owner US$3.1 million for the sheep.

"The ship is taking on new supplies of food and water in the next day or two and, once that process is complete, if we haven't got a satisfactory outcome to the commercial negotiations, we will look very seriously at bringing the ship home," Truss said.

Animal rights groups have called for the immediate slaughter of the sheep and a ban on Australia's A$1-billion-a-year (US$0.68 billion) live trade, but Truss said that killing the sheep at sea was not an option.

He said that the sheep were bought back after the British Army had said it wanted to distribute them throughout southern Iraq.

"Subsequently the British reconsidered their position and their concerns about the use of their resources for purposes other than security led them to the view that they were reluctant to continue with that arrangement," Truss said.

But he added that Australian officials were continuing negotiations with the British Army in Iraq and had a team of experienced stockmen ready to assist with any unloading arrangements that might be reached.

Truss said negotiations were also still continuing with other countries to offload the sheep, and discussions had taken place and offers been received from buyers in Africa, the Gulf, Europe and South America.

Truss said Afghanistan had accepted the sheep, but the animals were denied access to pass through Iran. He said Egypt had indicated it was unlikely to let the ship go through the Suez Canal, ruling out countries in Europe and North Africa.

Saudi Arabia refused to accept the sheep on Aug. 28 because of what it said was an unacceptably high incidence of scabby mouth.

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