Animal rights activists, agitated over the animals terrible plight, blocked a sheep carrier from docking at an Australian port while an alarmed New Zealand halted a livestock shipment to Saudi Arabia.

Now the Australian government says it is talking to 10 different countries across the Middle East in the hope of finding a solution.

However, an immediate end to the ordeal of the stranded sheep sailing on the Arabian peninsula appeared to be no where in sight.

Exported by Australia, they have been stranded in the high seas since weeks, after their Saudi importer refused to accept them on the grounds of an unacceptable high incidence of disease.

Australia is refusing to take back the livestock, saying they have become "foreign" since they docked in another country's port. Other countries are also refusing to accept the diseased animal cargo, even for free.

Stressed Conditions

"The sheep are actually owned by a Saudi importing company. They're on a Dutch ship with a Philippines flag and they're thousands of kilometres outside of Australian territorial waters," said Australian agricultural minister Warren Truss.

Meanwhile, 4000 of the sheep have died under stressful heat and their carrier, Cormo Express, has acquired notoriety as the "ship of death.'

Animal rights groups, who want the sheep put down immediately and further exports banned, used speedboats and canoes on Wednesday morning to block another sheep carier from entering the port of Portland on Australia's south coast to collect cargo.

"We don’t want the Al Kuwait to be another death ship," Mark Pearson, executive director of Animal Liberation group said.

The Al Kuwait was due to pick up tens of thousands of sheep and take them to a buyer in the Middle East, a destination where Australia –the world's largest livestock exporter- sends about six million sheep in 160 shiploads each year.

Australia has suspended sheep exports to Saudi Arabia, its largest market, until it can resolve the row over the stranded sheep.

"The public concern about this  issue inevitabley draws into question how the trade can continue into the future," Agricultural Minister Warren Truss said.

Export Halted

New Zealand shared similar concerns, halting during the day a plan to send 65,000 sheep to Saudi Arabia.

Fearful of becoming involved in a similar standoff, authorities would now insist on a contingency plan for disposing of sheep if they were rejected," Wayne Rickett, New Zealand's Agricultural Ministry adviser said.

The Cormo Express left Australia on 5 August, but the animals were barred from Saudi Arabia on 28 August on the grounds that 6% had scabby mouth disease.

Australia insists only 0.35% had the disease, but that has not helped in resolving the dispute.

Truss has dismissed calls for the immediate slaughter of the sheep and said the best option was to find a port to unload them.

Protestors said the action marked the beginning of a campaign to stop Australia's one billion dollar-a-year (680 million USD) trade in live animal exports.