/ 3 March 2008

Japanese whaling ship attacked by activists

Militant environmentalists hurled stinging acid for more than an hour onto a Japanese whaling ship off Antarctica on Monday, hurting three crew members, officials said.

Both Japan and Australia, the leading opponent of whaling, condemned the latest attack by the Sea Shepherd group, which has vowed to stop Japan’s controversial expedition by force if necessary.

Members of Sea Shepherd threw more than 100 brown envelopes containing a white powder and bottles of butyric acid from their own vessel onto the Japanese whaler Nisshin Maru, Japanese officials said.

Butyric acid is liquid or a white powder that stings the eyes.

Two crew members and two coast guard officers complained of pain after the hour-long attack, the Fisheries Agency said. Three of them required treatment by washing out their eyes.

Japan said it would file strong protests with Australia, where the Sea Shepherd’s Steve Irwin vessel last called into port, and The Netherlands, where the boat is registered.

“That was an inexcusable act to inflict unjustifiable damage to Japan’s ship and to harm the safety of the crew who are operating legally in the public sea,” said Japan’s top government spokesperson Nobutaka Machimura.

Sea Shepherd said the chemicals — which they described as “rotten butter” — would leave a stench and slippery surface for days on the Japanese ship, ensuring that the whalers could not operate.

“I guess we can call this non-violent chemical warfare,” Sea Shepherd chief Paul Watson said in a statement. “We only use organic, non-toxic materials designed to harass and obstruct illegal whaling operations.”

Japan, which says whaling is part of its culture, kills up to 1 000 whales a year using a loophole in a 1986 global moratorium that allows “lethal research” on the giant mammals.

Activists from the US-based Sea Shepherd had also hurled bottles onto the Japanese whaler in January. Two activists, a Briton and an Australian, hopped onto the vessel, setting off a two-day stand-off.

Australia’s new government, which took office in December, has ramped up pressure on Japan against its killing of whales, which are beloved by Australians and sustain a major whale-watching industry.

Australian Foreign Minister Stephan Smith urged both sides to show restraint.

“I absolutely condemn actions by crew members of any vessel that cause injury — or have the potential to cause injury — to anyone on the high seas,” Smith said.

The incident came as Japan held a seminar with officials from 11 developing states that have recently joined or considered joining the deadlocked International Whaling Commission.

In front of the Tokyo conference building, Greenpeace environmental activists held a board designed to look like a Japanese yen note with the face of Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda.

“The government invited delegations from 12 countries, but most of them have nothing to do with whaling,” said Junichi Sato of Greenpeace Japan.

The countries taking part in the seminar are Angola, Cambodia, Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ghana, Laos, Malawi, Palau, Tanzania and Vanuatu, the foreign ministry said.

Micronesia was invited but did not attend, officials said.

The delegations were also invited to tour Japan’s traditional whaling towns of Ayukawa in the north and Taiji in the west.

“We will discuss more here than just the supply of whale meat,” Japan’s chief whaling negotiator Joji Morishita told the conference.

“Whaling is a symbolic matter when you discuss the larger issue” of each nation seeking food security, he said.

Asked on his reasons for attending, a delegation member from Ghana said only: “Japan has its own foreign policy.”

The number of members of the International Whaling Commission has mushroomed to 78, with many of the new members having little or no history of whaling. – AFP