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Japanese whalers give Greenpeace the slip
Updated: 2005-12-29 09:52

Japanese harpooners slipped away from Greenpeace anti-whaling activists under cover of a storm in the Southern Ocean, the environmental group's team leader said.

But in a game of high-seas chess, Greenpeace vessels stuck with the Japanese whaling fleet's mother ship in the icy waters off Antarctica, despite 10-metre (30-foot) waves and 120 kilometer (75 mile) per hour winds, he said.

"The hunting vessels have disappeared for the past 48 hours," Shane Rattenbury told AFP by satellite telephone from the Arctic Sunrise, one of two Greenpeace ships harassing the Japanese fleet.

"But they can't do much whaling without the mother ship. If they catch a whale they have to bring it straight back to the factory ship."

The International Whaling Commission imposed a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986 but Japan says its whale hunts are carried out for scientific research -- a claim critics reject.

Greenpeace had taken a tactical decision to stick with the mother ship when three "catcher" boats, which carry the harpoons, disappeared along with two spotter vessels, Rattenbury said.

Stormy weather had prevented the activists from using a helicopter to search for the five ships, and they were not visible on radar, he said, admitting to some puzzlement over the Japanese tactics.

"The behaviour of the fleet has been uncharacteristic. The mother ship has sailed in circles... It's very odd.

"We're a bit confused by their tactics. And I think they're confused that we can keep up with them."

Greenpeace has deployed its newest boat for this mission, the Esperanza, or Hope in Spanish, which was specifically designed to be able to match the speed of the Japanese fleet -- something the older ships were unable to do, Rattenbury said.

"It's been a Mexican stand-off in continual bad weather, but today is fine," Rattenbury said around midday (0100 GMT). "If your business is hunting whales, today is a good day for it."

Early Wednesday, the Japanese mother ship had stopped and was drifting within sight of the Greenpeace boats, some 150 kilometres (86 miles) off the coast of Antarctica, he said.

But, contacted again in the late afternoon, Rattenbury said incoming fog and a snow storm had again prevented the helicopter from taking off, and the mother ship had begun steaming west.

"We have not spotted the other boats, but no whale carcasses have been delivered," he said.

The activists have seen no whales killed since last Saturday, when the Japanese fleet headed away from their hunting grounds after constant harassment by Greenpeace boats, including a minor collision.

The Japanese whaling authority, the Institute of Cetacean Research, has accused the group of breaching maritime safety laws and endangering lives.

Rattenbury said the Japanese boat was at fault and Greenpeace was preparing a detailed response to the allegation.

The Greenpeace boats, the Esperanza and the Arctic Sunrise, with a total of 57 crew on board, intend to continue harassing the Japanese fleet for several weeks, Rattenbury has said.

Despite international protests, Japan has this year more than doubled its planned catch of minke whales to 935 and added 10 endangered fin whales, with plans to eventually lift the number to 50, along with 50 rare humpback whales.

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