The environmental group Greenpeace has claimed its protests have forced Japanese whalers to abandon their activities in the Southern Ocean near Antarctica. The campaigners have been following Japanese ships for several days, but the Australian government has warned the Greenpeace tactics could be counterproductive.

  A Greenpeace spokesman claimed Friday the Japanese whaling convoy in the Southern Ocean was no longer trying to catch whales and was "on the run."

The environmental group insisted the whalers are trying to escape its protesters, after several days of confrontation in the icy waters near Antarctica.

The Japanese have not confirmed that they have abandoned their hunt.

Dramatic footage of the stand-off has been relayed on Australian television. Activists in small inflatable boats were shown moving between whales and harpooners, allowing several of the giant marine mammals to escape. Japanese crews responded by turning fire hoses on the protesters.

While the environmentalists are claiming victory, the Australian government, which opposes whaling, believes their actions could backfire.

Australia's environment minister, Senator Ian Campbell, says the confrontation in the Southern Ocean could harden opinion in Japan.

"I think, there's an argument to say, to the extent that you could entrench pro-whaling views in Japan, there is a risk that it's counterproductive," he said. "The up side is, the world gets to see what's happening in the Southern Ocean, with very graphic, very clear digital photographs of the destruction of whales."

A sick crewmember from one of the Japanese whaling ships has arrived by helicopter in Hobart for urgent medical treatment.

Campaigners have threatened to stop his boat leaving the Tasmanian capital after it refuels over the weekend.

The Japanese have always insisted their whale hunt in the Southern Ocean is for scientific purposes. Critics claim it is a cover for the commercial killing of whales for consumption in Japan, where the meat is popular.