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By Franck Madoeuf

NOUMEA, New Caledonia (December 2, 1998 - AFP)---Angry New Caledonians protested Wednesday as the fire-damaged mother ship of a Japanese whaling fleet arrived here for repairs, and waved banners telling the "whale killers, go home."

Environmental groups already had been angered when three of the support ships from the fleet arrived on Monday morning at Noumea port in the French Pacific territory.

The three boats left early Wednesday to continue their whale hunt, but the fleet's factory ship, the Nisshin Maru, damaged by fire on November 20, docked later Wednesday for repairs.

It was accompanied by a salmon trawler and another whaling ship, the Kyo Maru.

The Nisshin Maru caught fire and lost power 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) east of Australia with 111 crew on board.

It is the world's only boat capable of processing whale meat at sea, and is equipped with cutting and measuring tools.

"Japanese tourists welcome, whale killers go home," read one banner.

Another urged: "Don't touch our whales."

"The presence of these boats in the port of Noumea is a real insult and a provocation to those who are aware that our future tightly depends on our ability to preserve natural resources," said Guy Fohringer, a member of the environmental group Action Biosphere.

Earlier he warned: "The territory's authorities must realize that New Caledonia does not want to welcome nuclear submarines or whaling ships. The Japanese population must know that we strongly condemn whale hunting.

Australia and New Zealand, which have refused to allow the damaged mother ship to dock, want the entire southern hemisphere to be a whale sanctuary to complement existing sanctuaries in the Southern and Indian Oceans.

Tokyo, a major aid donor to South Pacific nations, opposes the move.

The demonstrators were to hand in a letter of protest to the French High Commission here, urging the French authorities to inspect the boat's hold.

Claire Garrigue, a marine biologist, said many scientists "now consider that hunting for scientific reasons is no longer necessary to obtain information on whales."

Japan, which has a long history of whaling, says commercial whaling has a unique social and cultural significance and vowed earlier this year it would never accept a whale ban on the high seas.

It claims the Antarctic whale hunt is for scientific research, although the meat is often sold on the open market for tens of millions of dollars.

Last year 1,700 tons of whale meat from the Southern Ocean research were sold in Japanese fish markets for an estimated 80 million Australian dollars (50.4 million US), environmentalists say.

Michael J Field Agence France-Presse Auckland, New Zealand TEL: (64 21) 688-438 FAX: (64 21) 694-035 E-Mail: WWW:

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