SYDNEY, Australia – Australia said Thursday it would send a ship to pick up two anti-whaling activists who jumped on a Japanese harpoon vessel from a rubber boat in Antarctic waters, offering a solution to a tense, two-day standoff on the high seas.
The protesters from the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society scored a victory with their stunt, bringing Japan's whale hunt to a standstill while officials scrambled to resolve the faceoff.
The Australian customs ship Oceanic Viking will pick up the two activists, an Australian and a Briton, and return them to their anti-whaling vessel as soon as the details can be arranged, Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said.
The two sides in the dispute have traded accusations of piracy and terrorism since the activists' boarded the harpoon ship Yushin Maru 2 on Tuesday. Smith urged both sides to end their acrimony to allow a safe transfer of the pair.
"The transfer of men from one ship to another, and then to a third ship in any circumstances is a potentially difficult operation," Smith said.
Getting the men off the Japanese ship would pave the way for the whalers to resume their plans to kill almost 1,000 whales this season under the country's disputed scientific research program.
Australia's involvement came at the request of the Japanese government. Sea Shepherd had also said it wanted Australia's help to get its members back.
Australian Benjamin Potts, 28, and Giles Lane, 35, of Britain jumped from a rubber boat onto the Japanese ship's deck in the icy waters off Antarctica after a high-speed chase.
Sea Shepherd said the pair wanted to deliver an anti-whaling letter and leave, and accused the whalers of taking their members hostage. Japanese whaling officials said the activists were acting like pirates.
The faceoff was a rapid escalation of the annual contest between the fleet that carries out Japan's whale hunt in Antarctic waters and conservationists who want the practice stopped.
Japanese officials said repeated attempts to contact Sea Shepherd to arrange a return of the activists had failed, and accused them of dragging out the dispute to generate publicity.
"It has become apparent that it will be impossible to hand the two trespassers back directly to Sea Shepherd, so our only option at this point is to make contact with another ship such as the customs vessel Australia dispatched," said Hideki Moronuki, a spokesman for the Japanese Fisheries Agency's whaling section.
Sea Shepherd said it had not been approached by any Japanese officials.
Australia, a firm opponent of whaling, sent the Oceanic Viking to the Antarctic Ocean last month to collect photo and video evidence that could be used in a possible challenge to Japan's scientific whaling program in international forums.
Smith said the Oceanic Viking was within sight of the whaling fleet Thursday, but that the operation would only go ahead if the captains of both ships, and the two activists, cooperated.
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said he was concerned that the operation would be dangerous.
"I would again urge restraint on the parties, full cooperation on the part of those involved to ensure the safe return of these two individuals," Rudd said.
Sea Shepherd chases the Japanese whaling fleet each hunting season, and vows to take any measures short of deliberately hurting the Japanese crew to stop them from killing the animals.
The two activists were briefly tied up after boarding the harpoon vessel. Watson alleged the Japanese crew assaulted the activists, which Japanese officials denied.
Japan sent ships to Antarctica in November to kill minke and fin whales under a program that skirts an international moratorium on commercial whaling.
The ban allows limited hunts for scientific research, a loophole Japan has used to kill nearly 10,000 whales over the past two decades, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
Opponents say Japan's program is commercial whaling in disguise because the meat is later sold on the market. Environmentalists say Japan's hunts are detrimental to vulnerable whale populations in the area.