The Japanese government has ordered the release of two activists detained when they boarded a Japanese harpoon vessel operating in Antarctica to deliver an anti-whaling protest, Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said Wednesday.
But Paul Watson, the captain of the Steve Irwin protest ship, said he hadn't been told how and where the transfer would take place.
"We haven't heard anything from the Japanese or Australian governments in response to that," Watson told Australia's ABC Radio. "We don't know where that ship is so we don't know where the men are being held."
Sydney man Benjamin Potts, 28, and British national Giles Lane, 35, are crew members of the Steve Irwin, owned by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which sailed to the Southern Ocean in December to try and disrupt the harpooning.
"The most important thing here is the safety and welfare of the two men concerned and we do want their immediate release," Smith said, announcing he had received an assurance from Tokyo that the pair would be let go.
Watson alleged the pair were assaulted and held above decks on the Yushin Maru 2 for two-and-a-half-hours in freezing weather before being taken below.
"They assaulted them, they tied them to the rails and actually at one point those rails went under water up to their waists," Watson said.
The five-vessel fleet left Japan in November with the intention of returning with 935 minke whales and 50 fin whales. Initially, 50 humpbacks were to be taken as well, but this part of the catch is in abeyance after Australia and New Zealand led an international protest.
Glenn Inwood, spokesman for Japanese whaling organization the Institute of Cetacean Research, said the pair had been tied up to restrain them after a failed attempt to foul the propeller. He described the accusation that the men had been assaulted as "absolute lies."
The new Australian government led by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has been accused of talking tough on the whale slaughter but doing little to stop it.
The Australian Federal Court ruled Tuesday, in a hearing brought by the Humane Society International, that the Japanese broke environment protection legislation because they were killing and injuring minke and fin whales in the Australian whale sanctuary in the Southern Ocean.
But Justice James Alsop noted that Japan doesn't recognize the whale sanctuary and the society was powerless to enforce the injunction he granted.
An Australian ship left Perth last week on a 20-day mission to monitor the Japanese. The Oceanic Viking, with 30 Customs officers on board, intends to gather video evidence for a possible international court action against Japanese-government-sponsored whaling.
Watson called the Oceanic Viking a "ghost ship" because it hadn't approached the Japanese despite being given the co-ordinates of the fleet's location by the protestors.
Smith said Australian police were looking at the circumstances of the detention of the two activists but would not comment when asked whether they had been taken hostage or whether they had been assaulted.
"I'm not going to make an on-the-run judgement about the circumstances of what has occurred," Smith said. "From the very first day I urged all parties in this matter to exercise restraint. It's quite clearly the case that restraint hasn't occurred here." ( Dpa )