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Last Updated: Thursday, 15 February 2007, 18:47 GMT
Japan ship fire 'under control'
The Nisshin Maru ship. Photo: AP/The Institute of Cetacean Research
Some 30 crew members remain on board the ship, officials say
A fire that broke out on a Japanese whaling ship near Antarctica has been brought under control, Japanese officials in Tokyo have said.

The blaze on board the Nisshin Maru took hold at about 0500 local time (1600 GMT Wednesday).

About 120 crew members were taken off the vessel but 30 stayed behind to tackle the fire while one is still unaccounted for, officials said.

There are fears the vessel could cause some environmental damage.

The cause of the fire was still being investigated, the Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR) in Tokyo said.

It said that presently there was no danger of fuel or oil from the vessel being leaked into the Ross Sea.

The Nisshin Maru fire occurred with the vessel in the Ross Sea

New Zealand maritime officials - whose country is responsible for search and rescue operations in the area - said the blaze had nothing to do with whaling protesters in the area but was possibly caused by a mechanical fault.

Meanwhile, pro-whaling countries have ended a conference in Japan by accusing anti-whaling nations of "imperialism".

Japan had called the conference with the declared aim of easing divisions within the International Whaling Commission (IWC), but major anti-whaling countries including Britain, Australia and the US stayed away.

Environmental concern

The alarm was sounded on board the Nisshin Maru - an 8,000-tonne processing ship - just before daybreak on Thursday.

Objection - A country formally objects to the IWC moratorium, declaring itself exempt
Scientific - A nation issues unilateral 'scientific permits'; any IWC member can do this
Aboriginal - IWC grants permits to indigenous groups for subsistence food

About 120 members of its crew were evacuated to three other ships in the whaling fleet, while 30 people stayed to fight the fire.

It is not clear whether the missing crew member was caught up in the blaze or fell overboard into the icy waters.

The Japanese whaling fleet has been pursued by activists, protesting at plans to hunt 850 minke whales and 10 fin whales.

In recent days, protesters from the Sea Shepherd environmental group have clashed with the whalers, and thrown acid and other objects on the ships to try to stop them carrying out their hunt.

New Zealand Conservation Minister Chris Carter said that while the safety of the whaling ship's crew was the top priority, "we are also gravely concerned about the environmental risk to Antarctica's pristine environment, if the ship is sufficiently damaged to begin leaking oil".

Earlier this week, Japanese fisheries officials described members of the Sea Shepherd group as terrorists, after one of their vessels collided with a whaling boat in the southern ocean.

After that incident activists threatened to ram the Nisshin Maru to prevent whales being hauled on board for processing.

But the activists' ships were at least two or three days' sailing distance away from the whalers when the fire occurred.

"We haven't had contact with the vessel for about three days now and have been heading back to port because we are short of fuel," Sea Shepherd leader Paul Watson told Australian TV.

The Japanese whaling ship out at sea

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