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Japan to hunt whales despite threat

Japan will go ahead with its whaling programme in the Antarctic later this year under heightened security to fend off activists who have vowed to disrupt the annual hunt, the country's fisheries minister said.

Japan's whale hunts have become increasingly tense in recent years because of clashes with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.

The most recent expedition was cut short after several high-seas confrontations, and it was unclear whether the hunt would be held at all this year.

But fisheries minister Michihiko Kano said that measures would be taken to ensure the whalers' safety, and that the hunt would go ahead. It is expected to begin in December.

"We intend to carry out the research after enhancing measures to assure that it is not obstructed," he said.

Commercial whaling has been banned since 1986, but Japan conducts whale hunts in the Antarctic and the north-western Pacific under an exception that allows limited kills for research purposes.

Japan's government claims the research is needed to provide data on whale populations so that the international ban on commercial whaling can be re-examined - and, Japan hopes, lifted - based on scientific studies.

Opponents say the programme is a guise for keeping Japan's dwindling whaling industry alive. The Sea Shepherd group, which is already rallying to block the upcoming hunt, has been particularly dogged in its efforts to stop the kills.

Last year's season was marred by repeated incidents with Sea Shepherd vessels, one of which sank after colliding with a Japanese ship. The boat's captain, New Zealander Peter Bethune, was later arrested when he boarded a whaling ship from a jet ski, and brought back to Japan for trial.

He was convicted of assault, vandalism and three other charges and given a suspended prison term. Bethune has since returned to New Zealand.

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