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Last Updated: Thursday, 17 January 2008, 16:27 GMT
Whaling pair 'leave Japan ship'
Activists Giles Lane (R) and Benjamin Potts (L) on the Yushin Maru (Image: ICR)
The two activists boarded the Japanese whaler on Tuesday
Two activists who boarded a Japanese whaling vessel have been handed to an Australian ship after a two-day Antarctic stand-off, officials say.

The Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR), which runs the whaling trip, said the men were "transferred safely" to an Australian Customs vessel.

The pair, from the radical Sea Shepherd group, boarded the vessel on Tuesday.

The ICR then branded the activists as terrorists, while Sea Shepherd accused the ICR of illegal hunting.

Earlier, Australian PM Kevin Rudd had urged both sides to exercise restraint.

ICR chief Minoru Morimoto said the two protesters had intended a "long sojourn" aboard the whaling vessel.

Founded 1977 by Paul Watson, one of Greenpeace founders
Self-proclaimed policing organisation aimed at protecting marine wildlife
Committed to shutdown of all illegal whaling and sealing operations
More confrontational than other environmental groups
Has fleet of three ships plus several smaller boats

"It became very clear yesterday that Sea Shepherd had no intention of retrieving their two intruders, who boarded the Yushin Maru with backpacks carrying a change of clothes, toiletries and other sundry items.

"The Australian government accepted Japan's request to assist and remove the men from our research vessel to allow us to continue our work."

Sea Shepherd's executive director, Kim McCoy, had earlier pointed out that the Japanese would not be whaling while the activists were on board.

The stand-off ratcheted up tensions between Sea Shepherd and the whalers, who have clashed in the past.

The whalers say the men tried to damage their propeller and threw acid before illegally boarding.

They offered to return the two activists - Briton Giles Lane and Australian Benjamin Potts - if Sea Shepherd agreed not to confront the whaling vessel during the handover.

Sea Shepherd responded, saying the men had been roughed up when they boarded the vessel and ruled out any kind of conditional handover.

Japanese whaling vessel, 15/01/08
Whalers and campaigners have indulged in a war of words

As the deadlock continued, Sea Shepherd threatened a commando-style raid if the activists were not returned.

A whaling official, meanwhile, said the activists could be taken to Japan if Sea Shepherd did not co-operate.

But tensions were defused after the Australian government intervened.

The Japanese fleet plans to kill about 900 minke whales and 50 fin whales by mid-April as part of what it describes as a scientific research programme.

But other nations and environment groups say the research goals could be achieved using non-lethal methods and call the programme a front for commercial whaling.

Map showing routes of whalers
November 2007: Japanese fleet of six whaling ships sets sail
31 December: MV Esperanza carrying Greenpeace campaigners enters Antarctic waters on trail of Japanese fleet. MV Steve Irwin carrying rival Sea Shepherd Conservation Group also heads towards whaling fleet
9 January: Australian ship Ocean Viking leaves Perth on whaling surveillance mission
12 January: Greenpeace campaigners have first sighting of Japanese fleet
15 January: One Briton and one Australian held by Japanese after boarding Yushin Maru No 2 to deliver protest letter
17 January: Protesters handed over to Australian Ocean Viking

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