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Last Updated: Friday, 18 January 2008, 05:53 GMT
Australians transfer whaling pair
Australian officials return the two activists to their ship (Image: Sea Shepherd)
Australia had to step in to end two days of deadlock
Australian officials have returned two activists who boarded a Japanese whaler to their own vessel, ending a stand-off in Antarctic waters.

The pair, from the radical Sea Shepherd group, boarded the Japanese vessel as part of an anti-whaling protest.

An Australian surveillance ship was called in to transfer the two men back, when whalers and activists could not agree on a direct hand-over.

Australia's Foreign Minister Stephen Smith called for calm from both sides.

"I again urge all parties to exercise restraint, to observe the law and the conventions so far as maritime safety is concerned, and to ensure that an incident like this does not occur again," he said.

Australian Federal Police said that they were investigating the actions of the two activists - Briton Giles Lane, from Leeds, and Australian Benjamin Potts.

The activists said that they would continue to harass the Japanese fleet, which said it would now resume whaling after a temporary suspension.

Deadlock

The Australian ship, the Oceanic Viking, returned the pair to Sea Shepherd's Steve Irwin vessel early on Friday.

SEA SHEPHERD GROUP
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

The Oceanic Viking, in Antarctica to collect evidence for a possible legal challenge against the whalers, was called in to end deadlock over the two men.

The two activists boarded the Yushin Maru 2 harpoon vessel on Tuesday.

The whalers sought to return them, but wanted assurances from Sea Shepherd that they would not be attacked during any transfer.

Sea Shepherd rejected any conditional handover and accused the whalers of holding the two hostage.

As both sides ratcheted up rhetoric, the Japanese and Australian governments agreed to use the Oceanic Viking to end the stand-off.

Mr Potts said he planned to stay on the Steve Irwin.

"We'll continue to harass the Japanese fleet and prevent them from whaling," he told Australian media.

He said the whalers tried to throw him overboard, something described by a whaling official as "completely untrue".

The whalers, meanwhile, said that they would resume operations.

"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 programme," Glenn Inwood of Japan's Institute for Cetacean Research told the French news agency AFP.

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.

TRACKING JAPANESE WHALERS
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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