Tuna ship mutiny leaves 11 dead

Japanese coastguards are investigating an apparent mutiny on a tuna ship which left 11 people dead.

Maritime Safety Agency (MSA) officials received conflicting statements from survivors on the Pesca Mar, a Honduras-registered vessel found drifting 330 miles south of Tokyo on Sunday.

It was reported missing on 3 August after the Korean skipper, Choi Ki Taek, radioed to another ship that his Chinese crew members were refusing to work. Later the mutineers apparently threw overboard the skipper, six other Koreans, three Indonesians and one Chinese.

Yesterday the Pesca Mar was under observation by two MSA ships. The mutineers were locked in their cabins, having been overwhelmed by other crew members. "We have never dealt with a mutiny of these proportions," said Tomohiro Innami, of the MSA. "We're getting so many different stories on what happened out there it's going to take a while before we know what went on."

The situation is complicated by a muddle over jurisdiction. The Japanese coastguards intercepted the ship in international waters. Although it is registered in Honduras, it sailed from the South Korean port of Pusan, and is managed by a Korean fishing company on behalf of Omani owners. The majority of the dead were South Koreans, and it is thought the perpetrators were ethnic Koreans from China.

Yesterday a diplomat from the South Korean embassy visited the Japanese Foreign Ministry and asked for the ship to be handed over. "With someone dead on the vessel, we can't tow the ship anywhere until someone first conducts an investigation," the MSA spokesman said.

A maritime police officer in Pusan said the mutineers were driven to act by harsh working conditions. "The captain of the boat reported that fishing was not possible because ethnic Koreans were refusing to work and he had set sail for Samoa. The mutiny seems to have occurred immediately, because all communication was lost soon after that." Korean businesses in Asian countries from Vietnam to Indonesia have been dogged by problems with their workforces. Rising wage expectations among their own nationals have forced Korean skippers to recruit increasingly from poorer countries.