January 15, 2006

Whaler harpoon nearly hits protesters

CANBERRA (Reuters) - A Japanese whaling harpoon narrowly
missed an inflatable boat carrying environmental protesters,
causing one to fall into the freezing sea, as both sides warn
their face-off is becoming increasingly dangerous.

The Greenpeace vessel Arctic Sunrise has been shadowing the
Japanese whaling fleet for several weeks in an attempt to
disrupt Japan's annual whale hunt, prompting a heated exchange
on January 8 when the Greenpeace ship and a Japanese ship

In the latest incident on Saturday, the harpoon came within
a meter of the inflatable boat as it tried to shield a minke
whale, the environmental group said.

The harpoon's trailing line knocked one activist into the
sea. He scrambled back aboard the boat without injury.

Greenpeace expedition leader Shane Rattenbury said the
whalers were taking more risks to fill their catch in Antarctic
waters south of Australia.

"There is definitely an increasing level of tensions down
here and the harpooners are certainly starting to take shots
that perhaps a week or two weeks ago they would not have
taken," Rattenbury told Sky television.

"Yesterday took it to a new level -- we are very concerned
about that," he said, adding the incident might force
Greenpeace to review its tactics.

But Japan's Institute of Cetacean Research in Tokyo said it
was Greenpeace that was taking more risks to remain in the
media spotlight.

Institute chief Hiroshi Hatanaka said in a statement
Greenpeace put its inflatable boat dangerously close to the bow
of the whaling vessel when the harpooner fired.

"Our harpooner had a clear shot and took it. The strike was
perfect and the whale was killed instantly," he said.

"The fact that the rope fell onto their inflatable and one
of the activists fell into the water is entirely their fault.
We are also concerned that they tried to cut the line because
it makes it more dangerous for them."

Australia, a strong opponent of Japan's whaling programme,
has refused to intervene by sending navy ships to monitor the
whaling and protests.

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said last week Australia
sympathised with the protesters, but said they had to make sure
their protest was peaceful and did not endanger anyone.