Sun, Feb 03, 2008 - Page 4 News List

'Steve Irwin' docks, crew face police

PIT STOP The protest ship, carrying the two activists who boarded a Japanese whaling ship last month, sailed into Melbourne to get fuel and more supplies

AGENCIES , CANBERRA AND SYDNEY

Police will grill the hardcore activists who docked in Australia yesterday amid pressure from Japan for Canberra to take stronger action over recent anti-whaling protests in icy waters near Antarctica.

The Sea Shepherd protest ship the Steve Irwin arrived to a noisy welcome in Melbourne with two crew who boarded a Japanese harpoon ship in Australia's self-proclaimed Southern Whale Sanctuary last month. A 100-strong crowd cheered and whistled as they docked.

But skipper Paul Watson and his crew were to face questions over the boarding of the Yushin Maru 2, which sparked heated Japanese accusations of "terrorism" and "piracy."

"Australian Federal Police will be making preliminary inquiries into the events that occurred in accordance with Australian legislation and Australian's obligations under international law," a police spokeswoman said.

The duo, Australian Benjamin Potts and Briton Giles Lane, were held for three days and whaling was suspended before they were handed to an Australian fisheries patrol vessel, which Japanese officials accused of giving them "limousine" service.

Potts, who plans to return to sea with Watson, said he had no regrets, despite his actions causing diplomatic friction between Australian and Japan.

"I think it's highlighted what's going on down there in the Antarctic," he said.

Police said an investigation had not officially started as officers were looking at whether international sea laws had been broken by either the protesters or the Japanese.

"If Australia wants to charge an Australian with piracy for trying to stop illegal whaling by the Japanese in the Antarctic territory, that's going to be a very amusing trial," Watson said.

The spokeswoman said an investigation could also be launched if Japan's government formally referred it to Australian authorities.

Japan has accused Australia of being too lenient on the pair because Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has promised a tougher approach, possibly including an international legal challenge, against Tokyo's cull of close to 1,000 whales.

Australia's Home Affairs Minister, Bob Debus, told local radio that at least five whales had so far been taken by the Japanese whale boats since Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd protesters both left the Southern Ocean to refuel.

Despite a moratorium on whaling, Japan is allowed an annual "scientific" hunt, arguing whaling is a cherished tradition and the hunt is necessary to study whales. Its fleet has killed 7,000 Antarctic minkes over the past 20 years.

Sea Shepherd's Watson said he was not worried about police inquires and planned to return south to chase the six-ship Japanese whaling fleet as soon as the Steve Irwin completed re-supply and engine repairs in around 10 more days.

"By far the most effective method is to keep chasing the fleet. They cannot do anything while we are following them and getting in their way," he said.

Watson said next year he wants to bring two ships into the Antarctic waters.

"We're aiming to come back next year with two ships which will be staggered, so they'll work as a tag team -- once one ship returns to port to refuel, the other ship can be out chasing the fleet," he said.

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