A militant anti-whaling group vowed Friday to immediately resume harassing Japanese whalers as two of its activists were returned to their protest ship after being detained on board a harpoon vessel.
|An Australian customs vessel returns the two anti-whaling activists to the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society's ship, the Steve Irwin, January 18|
The two protesters, held aboard the Japanese whaler in Antarctic waters for two days, were handed over to an Australian customs vessel early Friday and later returned to their Sea Shepherd Conservation Society's ship.
The pair were released to the Australian customs ship, the Oceanic Viking, after a direct handover between the Japanese ship and that of the conservationists proved impossible to negotiate.
Australian Benjamin Potts said the Japanese crew had tried to throw him overboard when he and fellow activist, Briton Giles Lane, 35, clambered onto the harpoon ship to protest Japan's whaling program during a high seas chase.
"Yeah they picked me up, two guys picked me up by the shoulders, and the gunner, the guy that shoots the whales, picked my legs up and they attempted to tip me over," Potts told Fairfax Radio Network back on the protest ship.
Potts, 28, pledged to resume action against the whalers.
"Well hopefully we'll continue with the chase, until such time as we have to head back," he also told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).
"We'll continue to harass the Japanese fleet and prevent them from whaling."
Other Sea Shepherd activists also said the incident would not stop them from attempting to save the whales.
"The moment we get them back on board we plan to resume what we came here to do, which is enforcing international conservation law," executive director Kim McCoy told the ABC ahead of the pair's release.
The Japanese whaling fleet is on its annual whale hunt in the icy Antarctic waters, with a target this year of killing about 1,000 of the giant mammals.
Japan exploits a loophole in a 1986 international moratorium on commercial whaling to kill the animals for what it calls scientific research, while admitting the meat from the hunt ends up on dinner plates.
The confrontation with Sea Shepherd had forced the Japanese fleet to suspend whaling for several days, but a spokesman for Japan's Institute of Cetacean Research said the Yushin Maru No. 2 would resume the hunt as soon as possible.
"The Yushin Maru is heading back towards the rest of the research vessels and yes, when it has the opportunity, it will continue with the program," Glenn Inwood told AFP.
Greenpeace said its ship the Esperanza had noted the Yushin Maru No. 2 leaving the whaling grounds to rendezvous to the north with its mother ship, the Nisshin Maru, claiming this as a victory.
"We are very happy to see yet another of the fleet has left the whaling grounds, and we will do everything we can to ensure they do not return to hunting," Greenpeace campaigner Sakyo Noda said from the Esperanza.
Greenpeace described the mother ship as a "factory ship" where the whales are processed and said its campaigners had seen whales that appeared to be safe.
"We saw a number of whales surfacing and blowing in front of the catcher boat, and it's fantastic to know that they are still safe from the harpoon, because we have kept the factory ship out of action and out of the hunting grounds," said Greenpeace expedition leader Karli Thomas.
Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith, who was at the forefront of negotiations to end the standoff, said Friday Canberra still strongly opposed Japan's whaling program but, because it had such a strong relationship with Tokyo, was able to reach an agreement on the men's release.
He noted that the Oceanic Viking was already in the area on a mission to gain evidence of Japanese whaling for potential use in an international court challenge to end the hunt for good.
"Our ultimate objective is to get the Japanese to stop whaling in the Southern Ocean," he told reporters.
Tokyo denies claims by the activist group that the men were "hostages", saying they had been treated well and the whaling ship had been keen to hand them over earlier.