Israeli Shipping Company Zim Admits Hitting Japanese Boat

Zim owner submits official apology to Japanese ambassador; Japan to ask Israel to cooperate in probe.

The Zim shipping company on Monday admitted one of its ships collided with a Japanese fishing boat last week, killing seven Japanese fishermen. Zim submitted a formal apology to the Japanese ambassador.

Idan Ofer, the chairman of The Israel Corp. holding company that controls Zim Integrated Shipping Services, said Zim offered financial support to the families of the seven sailors who died. No sum was disclosed.

The admission came after the Japanese Coast Guard said it had confirmed that paint in the collision marks on the fishing boat matched that of the Israeli ship, Zim Asia. Earlier, Japan had also said it would ask Israel for cooperation in the investigation of the hit-and-run collision which occurred off the coast of Japan last Wednesday.

"This is an extremely serious incident, and it is extremely regrettable," Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda said at a press conference Monday. "If you hit a ship in the middle of the sea, you obviously need to help it. We want Israel to clarify why an Israeli ship did not do this."

The Japanese Coast Guard is considering sending investigators to Israel, the officials were quoted as saying.

Earlier, the Zim shipping company announced that if one of its ships turned out to have been involved in the collision, the company would accept responsibility. Zim insisted Sunday that none of its ships has been involved in a collision of any kind in recent weeks.

"If it is discovered that Zim Asia was involved with the accident, the Zim company will accept responsibility," the company said in a statement.

A Zim spokesperson also said the company was conducting an internal investigation into the matter. He said the chairman of Zim Asia, Captain Yigal Dafne, was sent to the ship to question the crew, and that a group of company representatives had been sent to Japan to participate in the investigation there.

The spokesperson said the company was fully prepared to cooperate with all investigations of the incident, although the crew had reportedly refused to cooperate with Korean policemen in Busan.

The Israeli Embassy in Japan said Sunday that the Japanese authorities had 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 Wednesday.

The Zim Asia was supposed to have docked at Shanghai on Sunday morning, but was delayed by the interrogation of its crew in Busan and was set to arrive there Monday.

The spokesperson said initial reports of the internal investigation indicated that the crew had not felt any contact with another boat, but the results of the external investigation thus far have strengthened suspicions that Zim Asia was the culprit.

The Zim shipping company insisted Sunday that none of its ships has been involved in a collision of any kind in recent weeks.

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.

On Sunday, 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 were 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.