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IIs may return on casino ship

Stanley Ho

A CASINO ship owned by Macau gambling mogul Stanley Ho is being eyed by the Government to take home 1,700 Vietnamese illegal immigrants to China under an agreement with the Beijing authorities.

More than 2,400 ethnic Chinese Vietnamese have flooded into Hong Kong since the beginning of last month. All are to be returned under a deal struck by Hong Kong and the mainland in talks in Guangzhou which finished yesterday.

The two sides agreed the names of the first 100 people to be returned to Guangdong province by road next Friday.

The Chinese asked Hong Kong to provide additional information on the immigrants and a new list of personal details to be ascertained was agreed.

Two liaison officers, one from the mainland and one from Hong Kong, have been appointed and are expected to be in almost daily contact until the repatriation is complete.

Beijing is also setting up a liaison office in Guangdong to ease communications for the return of the immigrants of whom more than 900 have been identified as coming from Hainan, 800 from Guangxi, 330 from Guangdong and 50 each from Yunnan and Fujian provinces.

Officials from the Hong Kong side, which included Deputy Secretary for Security, Ken Woodhouse, and Deputy Immigration Director John Yeung Hin-chung, said it was too early to guess at cost or how long full repatriation would take.

During the two days of talks, which were convened after China invited Hong Kong to the negotiating table, the territory agreed to send back the majority of the illegal immigrants by ship.

Hong Kong will be responsible for the immigrants until the point of entry to China, either at the land border or at the port in Hainan or Guangxi.

Leader of the Hong Kong delegation, Deputy Political Adviser John Ashton, said: ''There are quite a lot of practical details to sort out.

''We have been sitting in a hotel for the past two days and have not been able to see how much it will be to charter a ship.

''We have got the first batch sorted out. The whole process will be completed as rapidly as possible.

''It would be unreasonable to have worked out to the nearest dollar how much it's going to cost Hong Kong.

''What is important from the point of view of cost is not the cost in shipping a shipment back - that cost is constant.

''As far as the Hong Kong public is concerned, the way to save expenditure is to get these people back sooner rather than later.'' Government officials are known to be considering chartering Stanley Ho's 4,760-tonne Macmosa - the only suitable vessel within easy reach of Hong Kong.

The 600-capacity ferry was last used last year to run gamblers between Taiwan and Mr Ho's Macau gaming tables but now lies unused at anchor, by far the largest vessel around the enclave.

Gambling facilities are thought to remain on board, having been used by eager Taiwanese punters heading to Macau.

''It's no Love Boat, but it's probably perfect for the job,'' one senior government official said.

Mr Ho originally used the ship to mount an aborted bid to muscle in on the casino ship trade in Hong Kong in 1990, fearing rivals were luring punters from Macau. He pulled the ship out soon after finding little money could be made.

The Acting Director of Marine, Ian Dale, confirmed that the Government had asked his department to prepare for a similar repatriation voyage to Beihai six years ago.

''Such a shipment will take place in the full international public eye, so every eventuality will have to be catered for,'' one official said.

''The ship has to be secure, have good food and medical facilities but none of these can be allowed to affect overall safety of the passengers.''