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UNHCR High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi gestures during a news conference at a hotel in Bangkok, Thailand, July 7, 2017. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

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SYDNEY (Reuters) - The U.N. refugee agency accused Australia on Monday of reneging on an agreement to settle some vulnerable asylum seekers held in controversial offshore detention centres, but Canberra said no such agreement existed.

Australia takes a hard line on asylum seekers, with those intercepted at sea sent for processing at camps on the tiny South Pacific island of Nauru and Papua New Guinea's Manus Island and told they will never be settled in Australia.

The UNHCR said Australia agreed to settle some of the near 2,000 men and woman held offshore in exchange for the agency helping facilitate a swap deal with the United States.

"We agreed to do so on the clear understanding that vulnerable refugees with close family ties in Australia would ultimately be allowed to settle there," UNHCR High Commissioner Filippo Grandi said in a statement.

"UNHCR has recently been informed by Australia that it refuses to accept even these refugees."

A spokeswoman for Australia's Minister for Immigration told Reuters no such agreement existed.

The swap deal, which involves the United States taking refugees from the offshore centres while Australia accepts refugees from Central America, is designed in part to help Australia empty the offshore facilities that have been heavily criticised by the U.N. and others..

U.S. President Donald Trump earlier this year branded the swap deal "dumb".

(Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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Reuters