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Japan Patrol Sinks Suspicious Boat

December 22, 2001

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TOKYO (AP) _ An unidentified fishing boat that defense officials said might have been spying sank off southwestern Japan on Saturday after trading gunfire with Japanese coast guard vessels.

The boat, which was marked with Chinese characters, was cruising in Japan’s exclusive economic zone near Amami Oshima island when it was detected by a Japanese naval aircraft on Friday. Patrol vessels and aircraft chased the boat Saturday after it disregarded orders to stop and fled west toward China.

After firing several warning shots, a coast guard vessel hit the stern of the boat with a burst of machine-gun fire on Saturday afternoon, starting a blaze that was later extinguished, Japan Coast Guard spokesman Yoji Osaka said.

The boat briefly halted after being hit, then resumed its flight. It stopped a second time Saturday evening and was surrounded by four Japanese vessels, but rough seas prevented boarding, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe told reporters.

The unidentified ship later traded fire with the Japanese vessels, wounding a coast guard sailor, the Coast Guard said. It then sank, leaving its 15 crew members adrift.

Defense officials who examined photographs of the boat said that it appeared similar to two suspected North Korean spy ships that were chased out of Japanese waters by patrol craft in March 1999, according to a Defense Agency official who spoke on condition of anonymity. Warning shots were fired in that incident, but the intruders were not hit or apprehended.

The Kyodo News agency reported, however, that some government officials suspected that the boat that sank Saturday was a Chinese smuggling vessel.

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