Japan gov't accused of cover-up attempt in naval accident

Japan's government came under fresh pressure Wednesday as the opposition alleged an attempted cover-up into circumstances of an accident in which a naval vessel rammed a fishing boat.

Japan gov't accused of cover-up attempt in naval accident

The Atago, Japan's newest and largest destroyer equipped with the Aegis radar system, crashed into the tuna boat last week, leaving two fishermen -- father and son -- missing in the high seas off the Pacific coast near Tokyo.

Defence Minister Shigeru Ishiba admitted poor judgement in interviewing the Atago's duty officer soon after the accident, before a formal probe could be launched.

The officer flew from the ship to the defence ministry for an hour of questioning by officials including Ishiba himself. Media reports said that the defence ministry told the coast guard the helicopter was transporting an injured person.

"It's only an afterthought now, but I don't necessarily think it was appropriate that we questioned a crew member without approval from the coast guard, even if it was an internal query," Ishiba told a legislative committee.

"The action was taken out of the defence ministry's need to grasp the facts of the accident as soon as possible and to report to the public," he said.

The opposition, which is pushing Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda to call a snap election, went on the offensive.

"This cannot be tolerated," said Yukio Hatoyama, one of top leaders of the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan.

"You couldn't blame anyone if they thought that this was part of a cover-up. There is no doubt that the public will grow distrustful," he said.

Ishiba has apologised over the accident and said the ship should not have been on auto-pilot as it returned to Japan from Hawaii.

A weekend poll said the crash contributed to a sharp drop in approval for Fukuda's government, whose support rate slipped below 30 percent for the first time since Fukuda replaced the beleaguered Shinzo Abe in September.

The Atago's skipper, Captain Ken Funato, on Wednesday met with the family and colleagues of the missing fishermen and offered an apology on a visit to their village of Katsuura.

"I am very sorry that a self-defence ship that must protect people's lives and safety has caused such an accident," Funato said, deeply bowing to members of a local fishermen's union.

Japan calls its military the Self-Defence Forces due to the pacifist constitution. Japanese troops have not fired a shot in anger since World War II.

Funato told reporters that he said to the victims' family that the defence ministry would "do its best in safety measures so as not to repeat such an accident."

Ishiba has hinted he may sack Funato, who was asleep at the time of the incident just past 4:00 am on February 19.

The incident was the latest in a string of mishaps for the defence ministry, which has also been embroiled in a corruption scandal involving its former top bureaucrat.

Defence ministry officials also came under fire for initially telling the media that the Atago spotted the fishing vessel two minutes before the crash, not giving enough time to stop.

A day later, officials said the destroyer noticed the boat 12 minutes before, raising questions about whether initial press conferences gave correct information.


Güncelleme Tarihi: 27 Şubat 2008, 13:20