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Chile Seizes Japanese Fishing Boats, Pinochet Eats Grapes

March 17, 1989

SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) _ Chile seized five Japanese fishing boats Thursday in reprisal for Japan’s closing of its market to Chilean fruit because of a cyanide scare.

Also Thursday, President Augusto Pinochet said the amount of cyanide found in two Chilean grapes in Philadelphia ″wouldn’t even kill a mouse″ and called U.S. warnings about Chilean fruit exaggerated.

″They tried to kill a fly with a tank,″ Pinochet said of the U.S. caution to consumers while he visited a fruit packing house. Then he ate several grapes.

U.S. Ambassador Charles Gillespie defended the U.S. action but added, ″We are all trying to get Chilean products back on the U.S. market as fast as is humanly possible.″

Navy Captain Patricio Urbina was quoted by the official news agency Orbe as saying the five Japanese trawlers were held in the ports of Talcahuano, Chacabuco and Punta Arenas, in southern Chile.

Orbe also quoted Urbina as saying a sixth Japanese boat, in waters near Antarctica, will be seized when it arrives at a Chilean port.

Adm. Jose Merino, navy commander-in-chief, told reporters: ″The Japanese have closed their market to Chilean fruits, so I’m holding their ships.

″None of them is going to fish in our waters until they re-open the market to our fruits,″ said Merino, who is also president of the law-making Military Junta.

Late Thursday, naval sources said two of the seized Japanese vessels were docked for repairs. The sources said the vessels were registered in Chile but operating leased by unidentified Japanese fishing companies.

An anonymous caller on Thursday claimed a rocket would be fired at the U.S. Embassy in Santiago. Police checked a nearby building but found nothing. They increased security around the embassy.

The Food and Drug Administration on Monday urged consumers not to eat Chilean fruit after two grapes in Philadelphia, in a shipment from Chile, were found to contain a small amount of cyanide. Many supermarkets pulled Chilean fruits from their shelves.

Canada and Japan followed the U.S. lead.

The fruit was found after the U.S. and Japanese embassies in Santiago received anonymous phone calls saying that Chilean fruit would be poisoned. The Chilean government blamed leftist terrorists.

Pinochet made his remarks during a surprise visit to two fruit packing houses near Santiago, where a worker handed the president and army commander a cluster of seedless white grapes, saying: ″Mr. President, these are the grapes they claim are poisoned.″

″They are very good,″ Pinochet replied, as he ate several.

Business and trade union organizations say thousands of workers have been fired as a result of the measure against the nation’s booming fruit export industry. The industry employs 500,000 workers and exports 65 percent of its products to the United States.

″What worries me most is you, the workers. I’m studying a compensation for you all,″ the president said.

Pinochet told workers he expects a solution to the problem ″probably within the next five days or so.″

The government said it increased security measures throughout the fruit export sector, including reinforcing controls in the fields, packing houses, in transportation and ports.

Chileans have reacted angrily to the U.S. warnings. On Thursday, hundreds gathered before the U.S. Consulate in Santiago carrying sigs reading ″Mr. Bush: Chilean Fruits are OK,″ and ″Chile demands compensation.″

Trucks loaded with fruit were taken to the demonstration site, and free grapes and apples were distributed to the people. Many ate them, others took them home.

Government officials and private businessmen have said the crisis will cost Chile up to $1 billion in lost fruit exports, which have become one of Chile’s most successful economic items in recent years.

Last year, fruit exports earned $581 million and had been expected to bring in $850 million this year.

Update hourly