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Anti-whaler says he was shot in Japanese clash

SYDNEY (Reuters) - A hardline anti-whaling activist, Sea Shepherd captain Paul Watson, said he was shot during a clash with Japanese whalers in the Southern Ocean on Friday, but survived because he was wearing a kevlar vest.

Paul Watson, captain of anti-whaling ship the Steve Irwin, shows what he says is a bullet (on left) and a bent badge after he said a member of the Japanese Coast Guard shot at at him from the Japanese whaling ship Nisshin Maru during a confrontation in the Southern Ocean March 7, 2008. REUTERS/Sea Shepherd Conservation Society/Handout

But Japan’s fisheries agency said coastguard officials aboard the whaling ship had only thrown “flash grenades”, which are used for crowd control and are not regarded as weapons.

Watson told Australian radio from his ship that anti-whaling activists threw “stink bombs” on to the Japanese whaling factory ship the Nisshin Maru. The Japanese retaliated throwing “flash grenades” on to the deck of the Steve Irwin and during the clash, Watson said he was shot.

“I felt this impact on my chest. I found a bullet buried in the kevlar vest that I wear. It bruised my shoulder but it would have hit my heart if I didn’t have the vest,” Watson said.

Sea Shepherd posted photos on its news Web site showing Japanese throwing smoking canisters and Watson holding what he said was a bullet and a dented badge hit by the object.

“I didn’t see anyone shoot at me and it was pretty hard for any of the crew to see anything because everyone was ducking from these flash grenades,” said Watson.

Australia’s foreign affairs department initially said it had been told by Japan that warning shots had been fired, but later clarified its statement saying Japanese whalers fired three “warning balls”, also known as “flashbangs”. Australia said Japan had said “no gunshots had been fired”.

“He must have heard the bang of the flash grenade and got a shock,” the fisheries ministry official said.

Coastguard officials have been assigned to Japan’s whaling vessels this season after escalating clashes with anti-whaling activists, who say the industry is cruel and unnecessary.

“There are two coastguards aboard the Nisshin Maru. They are armed with pistols, but they were not used in this incident,” a Japan Coast Guard spokeswoman said.

Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith called for calm from whalers and protesters.

“The Australian government once again calls on all parties in the Southern Ocean, including all protest and whaling vessels, and their respective crews, to exercise restraint,” he said.

Japan’s top government spokesman criticised Sea Shepherd’s attacks.

“They have repeatedly resorted to such activities and it is truly unforgivable,” Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura told reporters.

“Is it all right to hurt humans in order to protect whales? I think whales are cute and important creatures, but even so, hurting humans is unforgivable,” he added.

Watson’s ship has been harassing the Japanese whaling fleet for weeks. In an earlier confrontation two activists boarded a Japanese ship in January and were held until an Australian fisheries patrol ship in the Southern Ocean intervened.

During the January stand-off, Japan suspended its plan to kill nearly 1,000 whales during the year’s Antarctic summer.

Japan, which considers whaling to be a cultural tradition, abandoned commercial whaling after agreeing to an international moratorium in 1986, but began what it calls a scientific research whaling programme the following year.

Australia has promised to try to stop Japan’s whaling programme but the two countries have agreed not to let the issue hurt bilateral ties.

Additional reporting by Isabel Reynolds and Teruaki Ueno in Tokyo; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani