Anti-whaling activists yesterday threatened to ram Japanese whalers hunting in Antarctic waters, as Australia ruled out military intervention in the escalating conflict.
"It's a civilian issue. We don't see an Australian military role," Defense Minister Robert Hill said in response to calls for a navy patrol to be sent to the self-proclaimed Australian whale sanctuary.
"However, we don't condone any form of violent activity on any side," he told reporters.
Hill was speaking shortly before the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which has been hounding the whalers in its ship the Farley Mowat, issued a threat to the Japanese fleet of six ships.
"Sea Shepherd Conservation Society believes it is time to escalate the confrontation with the Japanese whaling fleet and bring an end to the illegal and ruthless slaughter of defenseless whales in the Antarctic Whale Sanctuary," the group said in a statement.
The statement, headed "Sea Shepherd intends to ram and disable pirate whalers," quotes the group's founder and captain of the Farley Mowat, Paul Watson, as saying he was "tired of politicians being apologists for these criminals."
"We sideswiped the whaling supply ship Oriental Bluebird yesterday [Monday], and we intend to disable any pirate whaling vessel we find. We intend to uphold the laws protecting whales. This nonsense must be ended," he said.
Watson, a founding member of the environmental group Greenpeace, left the organization in 1977 after disagreements over tactics and has taken a more aggressive approach with Sea Shepherd.
Greenpeace has two ships also harassing the Japanese whaling fleet in the Southern Ocean.
The International Whaling Commission imposed a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986, but Japan has continued hunting for what it calls scientific research -- a claim rejected by critics.
"Japan has threatened to send the airborne police to defend its whaling fleet," Watson said.
"What do they intend to do? Take pictures or strafe us, parachute onto our decks and arrest us? I hate to quote [US President] George W. Bush but hey, Bring em on," Watson said.
Greenpeace has distanced itself from any violent tactics in the anti-whaling protest and blamed the Japanese for a collision on Sunday between its ship the Arctic Sunrise and the Japanese factory ship the Nisshin Maru.
Watson said, however, he had deliberately collided with the Oriental Bluebird after "ordering" it to leave the hunting grounds.
"When they refused, we backed up the message by slamming our starboard hull against their starboard hull," he said. "There was no damage apparent to either ship aside from a long scratch along the hull of the Oriental Bluebird."