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Wednesday, 26 December, 2001, 11:55 GMT
N Korea condemns boat sinking
Japanese coast guard picture showing patrol boat Amami under fire
The Japanese say their boats were fired on
North Korea has finally commented on a mystery ship that sank after a confrontation with Japanese coast guard vessels, calling the incident "brutal piracy and unpardonable terrorism".

The statement implicitly rejected reports that the vessel which sank on Saturday was a North Korean spy or smuggling ship.

This crime is nothing but brutal piracy and unpardonable terrorism that could be committed only by samurais of Japan in defiance of international law

KCNA news agency
Pyongyang's official KCNA news agency said "Japanese reactionaries are spreading a sheer rumour" that the ship was North Korean.

North Korea's denunciation came shortly after Japanese media reported that the country's military had intercepted radio messages between North Korea and the mystery ship.

A patrol plane had located the vessel on Friday after a US intelligence tip-off, according to the Sankei newspaper and other Japanese media.

A Japanese defence official declined to comment on the reports, but said there was reason to believe the ship was from North Korea, as it was almost identical to one that made an incursion in 1999.

Mystery ship off Japan
The mystery ship was chased for six hours before being sunk
Japan is considering salvaging the vessel to help determine its nationality, but rough seas may prevent the operation from taking place until the spring.

A presidential spokesman, Hideichi Okada, said that Japan would have to discuss the matter with China because the ship sank near Chinese territorial waters, in what Beijing calls its exclusive economic zone.

Rocket launchers

So far two of the 15 crew members of the mystery boat have been recovered. Both had items with labels in Korean.

According to the report in Sankei, the intercepted radio messages suggest the vessel may have been on a drug smuggling mission.

Bullet holes on a Japanese patrol boat after the clash
It sank after a six-hour chase and exchange of fire with Japanese coast guard vessels.

At first it was believed to have been sunk by Japanese fire, but Japan on Monday raised the possibility that the crew had scuttled the ship.

Japanese officials say pictures released on Monday show the crew of the foreign boat using shoulder-held rocket launchers.

The Japan Times Online said the coast guard believes they are probably RPG-7s, Soviet-era weapons known to be in North Korea's arsenal.

These rockets are not very stable in windy conditions and missed their targets when fired from the ship, the report said.

First attack

The 100-tonne ship had a unique design which was detected through infrared surveillance devices, Japanese authorities were quoted as saying.

Officials suspect the boat was designed to carry special equipment on the deck, possibly including landing boats.

BBC correspondents say this is the first time in almost half a century that the Japanese coast guard has directly attacked a foreign ship in waters claimed by Japan.

The boat was outside territorial waters, but within the 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone, where Japan claims the right to protect its fishing and mineral resources.

See also:

25 Dec 01 | Asia-Pacific
Japan may raise mystery ship
23 Dec 01 | Asia-Pacific
Japan's hard line on coastal incursions
22 Dec 01 | Asia-Pacific
Japan fires on 'intruding' boat
26 Mar 99 | Asia-Pacific
North Korea denies 'spy ship' charge
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