SAPPORO, Japan - The results of an investigation into a hit-and-run maritime collision off the coast of Japan last Wednesday, which killed seven crew members of a Japanese fishing boat, have thus far strengthened suspicions that an Israeli ship, the Zim Asia, was the culprit.
The accident took place near Hokkaido, Japan's northern island, at about 3 A.M. on Wednesday, when a large ship collided with a fishing boat, causing it to capsize. The ship then allegedly sped away from the scene of the accident without reporting the collision or trying to assist the fishermen. As a result, seven of the eight crew members drowned.
Yesterday, the Japanese Coast Guard raised the sunken fishing boat and found a meter-long crack in its bow and a deep scratch some six to seven meters long along its side. The investigation is now focusing on comparing the paint that was scraped from the fishing boat in the collision with the paint found in several dents on the Zim Asia. An inspection of the latter that was carried out at the South Korean port of Busan, where the Zim Asia docked on Friday, discovered two places - one on the ship's bow and one on its belly - that bore marks as if the ship had struck something, and white paint was found in both places. This indicates that if the Asia was the culprit, it hit the fishing boat at least twice.
Samples of the paint found on the Zim Asia have been sent to Japan for comparison with the fishing boat's paint. However, according to the Japanese authorities, all of the 16 ships known to be in the vicinity of the collision last Wednesday have been examined, and only the Israeli ship bore the marks of a collision.
The Zim Asia first emerged as a suspect when an examination of the radar signals emitted by the ship that hit the fishing boat discovered that this radar signature is unique to Israeli vessels. A check of which Israeli ships had been in the area at the time then pointed to the Zim Asia as the most likely culprit. As a result, the Japanese asked the Korean authorities to inspect the boat when it docked at Busan, its next stop.
The collision was also observed by another nearby fishing boat, whose crew said that the ship in question had almost collided with their boat as well. Crew members said that after the collision, the ship responsible for the accident blinked its lights and then sailed away at high speed. It was the crew of this second fishing boat that recorded the guilty ship's radar signals and transferred them to the Japanese authorities for identification.
The Israeli embassy in Japan said yesterday that the Japanese authorities have not yet contacted them officially about the investigation. However, both the embassy and the Israeli Transportation Ministry confirmed that the Israel Shipping Administration has decided to send an investigator of its own to Hong Kong to question the Zim Asia's crew. The ship is slated to dock in Hong Kong on October 5.
While Korean policemen questioned the Zim Asia's crew in Busan, the crew reportedly refused to cooperate.
The Zim Asia was supposed to have docked at Shanghai yesterday morning, but was delayed by the interrogation of its crew in Busan. It will therefore arrive there today.
The Zim shipping company insisted yesterday that none of its ships has been involved in a collision of any kind in recent weeks.
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