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Australia Threatens Japan With Court Action Over Whale Hunt

Japan's foreign minister visits Australia Saturday for bi-lateral talks. Among the topics expected to be discussed is the sensitive issue of whaling. Australia is strongly opposed to Japan's annual whale harvest in the Southern Ocean and has threatened to take Tokyo to court if the hunt is not stopped by November.

Australia has set a November deadline for Japan to stop whaling in Antarctic waters, or face international court action.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said he was still hopeful that talks with the Japanese would lead to a negotiated settlement whereby Tokyo would abandon its annual hunt in the Southern Ocean.

Mr. Rudd will be able to deliver his ultimatum in person to Japan's foreign minister, Katsuya Okada, who arrives in Sydney Saturday for pre-arranged talks on trade and military ties.

The Australian leader says his government is committed to international legal action if discussions fail to convince Japan to stop killing whales in the Antarctic. "We have put ourselves onto a timeline. We are working it through with the Japanese but if they do not come at this agreement to reduce [hunting quotas] to zero, we will initiate that action," said Mr. Rudd.

Australia has threatened to seek international legal action before. This latest reference by Mr. Rudd, who is likely to face a general election later this years, has been dismissed as early electioneering by members of the Japanese government.

However, Australia insists it has amassed compelling photographic and video evidence to launch legal action against Japan at the international court of justice in The Hague.

Officials in Tokyo have expressed confidence they would win any legal confrontation, which threatens to destabilize relations between the Asia-Pacific partners.

The two nations approach the issue of whaling from vastly different cultural perspectives.

Australia views whales as irreplaceable giants of the sea whose vitality reflects the health of the oceans.

Many Japanese consider the large mammals as simply a source of food, although consumption of whale meat in Japan has declined.

Australian foreign minister Stephen Smith is confident that disagreements over whaling will not damage the bilateral relationship. "Neither of us will let it get in the way of the strength of what is a fundamentally important relationship between Australia and Japan," he said.

Japan kills about 1,000 humpback and minke whales each year in the Southern Ocean as part of what it calls genuine scientific research.

Australia, and other critics, say the annual hunt is merely a front for commercial whaling, which is banned under international law.

This year's hunt in the Southern Ocean has been punctuated by violent clashes between the Japanese fleet and radical conservationists.