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Anti-whaling activists say they were attacked by Japanese ships

By Jethro Mullen and Mark Morgenstein, CNN
February 26, 2013 -- Updated 0420 GMT (1220 HKT)
In these photos provided by Japan's Institute of Cetacean Research, SS activists onboard the inflatable boat "Gemini" sent from the Bob Barker deploy a wire-entwined rope near the Yushin Maru vessel, aiming to entangle its rudder and propeller, on Monday, February 25. In these photos provided by Japan's Institute of Cetacean Research, SS activists onboard the inflatable boat "Gemini" sent from the Bob Barker deploy a wire-entwined rope near the Yushin Maru vessel, aiming to entangle its rudder and propeller, on Monday, February 25.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Australia says Japan needs to stop aggressive whaling "once and for all"
  • NEW: Australia and Japan are threatening to take the issue to court
  • NEW: Each side claims the others' ships rammed theirs
  • Environmental groups face off each year with Japan's whaling vessels

Hong Kong (CNN) -- Japan and Australia are exchanging harsh words and threats of legal action in a dispute over a whaling incident near Antarctica.

Environment Minister Tony Burke is threatening to take Japan to international court, claiming a Japanese whaling fleet attacked Australian ships on Wednesday. But in the Japanese version of what happened, it's the Australians who deserve court sanctions.

"Japan needs to stop this once and for all," Burke told Australia's Seven Network on Thursday.

"What we are watching and what we've been seeing Japan do in that Southern Ocean year on year now is just disgusting. No other way of describing it. Now, as a government we don't settle it in the car park, we settle in the court," he said.

2011: War over whaling in Japan

"There's been the most outrageous attack on the Sea Shepherd Australia ships," said Bob Brown, a member of the board of directors of Sea Shepherd Australia, describing it as the "worst incident" the anti-whaling group had experienced since one of its vessels sank two years ago.

In an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), Brown said that a large Japanese factory ship, the Nisshin Maru, had repeatedly rammed Sea Shepherd ships in the Southern Ocean near Antarctica where it was trying to refuel and that a Japanese government escort vessel had directed water cannon and lobbed concussion grenades at the activists.

He claimed the Japanese ships had intruded into Australian territorial waters and breached international and Australian law.

"I'm very concerned and alarmed that Japan has decided to become pirates in our territorial waters," he said. "It's time the Australian government acted."

Burke told Seven Network it's not that simple.

"In terms of sending in the Navy, you've got to make sure you don't have a response here that blows up a whole lot of other things. The reason -- even though they're our territorial waters -- we don't assert that. And that's part of the whole Antarctic Treaty System, which prevents mining in Antarctica. You don't want to blow up that system," he explained.

"I've got to say with that court case we are now getting very close. It has been too long. We are now getting very close on that. But I'm not going to take an action that blows up the Antarctic Treaty System either," Burke said. "What we will do, though, is take the action that we've taken already with the International Court of Justice to [expose] that this gimmick that they've got -- claiming that's its scientific whaling, when everybody knows that's a con."

Japan annually hunts whales despite a worldwide moratorium, utilizing a loophole in the law that allows for killing the mammals for scientific research. Whale meat is commonly available for consumption in Japan.

Each year, environmental groups such as Sea Shepherd face off with Japan's hunters in a high seas drama that has led to collisions of ships, the detaining of activists and smoke bombs fired back and forth between the groups.

The Japan Fisheries Agency's Institute of Cetacean Research disputed the Australian claims in a statement.

The ICR says three Sea Shepherd ships sailed recklessly and abnormally close to the Nisshin Maru and its fueling ship during a refueling operation on Wednesday.

Although the Nisshin Maru tried to ward off the Australian ships with loud speakers and water cannons, the Sea Shepherd ships' "extreme dangerous" acts halted the refueling operation, the ICR said. During the process, the three Australian ships bumped the Nisshin Maru at least four times, causing some damage, the ICR said.

The Japanese agency said it's considering filing a third claim in a U.S. court for Sea Shepherd's "insults against the court authority." According to ICR, Sea Shepherd has been banned from threatening whaling ships' operations or sailing within 500 yards of whaling ships.

CNN's Yoko Wakatsuki in Tokyo contributed to this report. CNN's Jethro Mullen co-wrote this report from Hong Kong and Mark Morgenstein co-wrote this report from Atlanta.

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