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Last Updated: Monday, 19 February 2007, 12:42 GMT
New Zealand ship warning to Japan
By Nick Bryant
BBC News, Sydney

The Nisshin Maru ship (ICR)
The Nisshin Maru has been unable to move since Thursday
New Zealand's prime minister has warned Japan its whaling programme could come under fresh international scrutiny if a disabled vessel in its fleet leaks oil.

The Nisshin Maru has been stranded since Thursday morning after a fire started in its engine room close to the largest colony of Adelie penguins.

Prime Minister Helen Clark said the ship should be towed out of the area as quickly as possible.

She warned of an international backlash if it causes an environmental disaster.

Ms Clark is angry that the Japanese have refused an offer of help from the protest group Greenpeace, whose ship arrived at the scene on Saturday morning and could have easily towed the stricken vessel away.

We would like to see that stricken ship out of there as soon as possible
Helen Clark

The Japanese have asked the ship, a former salvage vessel, to remain on stand-by.

But they are reluctant to accept assistance from environmental activists, who they regard as terrorists.

'Pristine environment'

However, as Ms Clark indicated in her strongest comments yet, the New Zealand government's patience is fast running out.

"We believe the ship has to be moved north. Obviously, your first priority in a dangerous marine environment is to safeguard life, and we have a stricken ship, that's an issue. One crew member's life has already been lost," she said.

Map

"Secondly, we have a huge concern for the environment, a pristine environment in the area of Antarctica where New Zealand has a claim. So we would like to see that stricken ship out of there as soon as possible."

Repair crews have managed to restore power on the factory ship and hope now to restart its engines.

And they are adamant that the fire caused no structural damage and there is no danger of an oil spill.

But Greenpeace insists the ship has little chance of making it on its own and fears that the weather could easily deteriorate before help arrives, increasing the chances of pollution.




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