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Greenpeace, whalers clash at sea

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Crew members inspect damage to the bow of the Arctic Sunrise.

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SYDNEY, Australia (CNN) -- The Greenpeace environmental group says a Japanese whaling ship has deliberately rammed its protest ship Arctic Sunrise in the Southern Ocean.

But the Greenpeace claim has been disputed by the Japanese side, which said the Arctic Sunrise initiated Sunday's incident with its research vessel Nisshin Maru in waters off the Antarctic.

Greenpeace says the Nisshin Maru is the factory ship of the Fisheries Agency of Japan's whaling fleet.

No one was injured in Sunday's incident, though Greenpeace said its ship was "battered and bruised."

Greenpeace has been shadowing the Japanese whaling fleet in the Southern Ocean whale sanctuary in recent weeks.

It says that despite international protests about Japan's annual "scientific" whale hunt, the Fisheries Agency of Japan has sharply increased its catch of minke whales and added fin whales to the kill.

In a statement Sunday, Greenpeace expedition leader Shane Rattenbury said: "There is no way to describe this as anything but a deliberate ramming which placed the safety of our ship and the lives of our crew in severe danger."

In response, the Fisheries Agency's Institute of Cetacean Research said its Nisshin Maru was deliberately rammed by the Arctic Sunrise "while it was attempting to transfer cargo."

According to Rattenbury, the incident happened Sunday morning as Greenpeace activists aboard inflatables were beginning to paint the words "whale meat from sanctuary" on the side of a supply ship, the Oriental Bluebird, which was taking on whale meat from the Nisshin Maru.

He said the Arctic Sunrise was watching the action from about a kilometer (0.6 miles) away, when the Nisshin Maru suddenly disengaged from the supply vessel and headed for the Arctic Sunrise, striking it on the port side.

He said the Nisshin Maru then steamed away.

But in a statement from the Institute of Cetacean Research in Tokyo, Director-General Hiroshi Hatanaka said the bow of the Arctic Sunrise hit the Japanese vessel twice.

"The captain of the Nisshin Maru confirmed to ICR today that Greenpeace had rammed our vessel, which has sustained some damage. Luckily, no crew members were injured," he said.

A second Greenpeace ship, the Esperanza, was in the area at the time. About 70 crew and campaigners are on the two ships in the Southern Ocean as part of a Greenpeace campaign called "Defending our Oceans."

Another ship, the Sea Shepherd, which is not part of Greenpeace, has also been in the area.

Last week, the research institute said it was resuming what it termed its whaling research in the Southern Ocean "despite harassment and illegal actions by environmental groups Sea Shepherd and Greenpeace."

The institute said the Japanese ships would continue to use water cannons to deter the activists.

The Southern Ocean extends from the coast of Antarctica north to 60 degrees south latitude, which coincides with the Antarctic Treaty limit.

The Southern Ocean is the fourth largest of the world's five oceans, after the Pacific Ocean, Atlantic Ocean, and Indian Ocean. It is larger than the Arctic Ocean.

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