TOKYO — A fishing boat suspected of spying for North Korea sank off southwestern Japan late Saturday, with the apparent loss of all 15 crew members, after trading machine gun fire with Japanese coast guard vessels at the end of a six-hour chase, officials said.
Two coast guard sailors suffered minor wounds in the firefight, and an estimated 15 crewmen from the fishing boat were dumped into rough seas when the vessel went down 240 miles off the Japanese island of Amami Oshima.
Survivors clung to life preservers in the cold water for nearly two hours as rescue efforts were hampered by the rough conditions and concerns that the castaways might resist capture.
By early Sunday, there were no signs of survivors, coast guard spokeswoman Miki Sakamoto said. She said patrol boats were continuing a search.
Coast guard and defense officials said the unidentified fishing boat might have been spying for North Korea, and some officials suggested the boat’s crew members may have killed themselves to avoid capture.
In 1998, an alleged North Korean spy submarine got tangled in a fishing net off South Korea. All nine crew members were found fatally shot in an apparent suicide pact.
Authorities initially said Japanese gunfire sank the fishing boat. But Shinzo Abe, deputy Cabinet secretary to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, later speculated the boat’s crew might have scuttled the vessel, saying it sank quickly.
Twenty-seven Japanese ships and 14 aircraft chased the boat, which carried Chinese markings and was first spotted by plane Friday cruising about 90 miles off Amami Oshima inside Japan’s economic exclusion zone. Japan has exclusive fishing rights in the area, which extends 200 maritime miles beyond its 12-mile territorial waters.
The boat closely resembled vessels believed by Japanese authorities to have conducted surveillance activities for North Korea in the past, coast guard officer Shigehiro Sakamoto said.
Independent military analyst Kensuke Ebata told NHK television that it appeared to be equipped with a satellite dish and other surveillance gear.
Kyodo News agency reported, however, that some government officials believed the boat might have belonged to Chinese smugglers. When approached by a coast guard vessel Saturday afternoon and ordered to stop for inspection, the boat fled westward toward China, ignoring warning shots, officials said.
The Japanese vessel then fired at the boat, touching off a fire in its stern. The boat was finally surrounded by four Japanese coast guard vessels about six hours later.
Before the boat could be boarded, its crew reportedly fired submachine guns at the Japanese vessels, hitting two sailors. The Japanese vessels shot back, and the boat sank within minutes, officials said.
Neither North Korean state media nor China’s official Xinhua News Agency had reported the incident by late Saturday. The Chinese Foreign Ministry was closed for the weekend.
Japan recently strengthened the coast guard’s search-and-pursuit capacity with high-speed patrol boats and night vision equipment. The upgrade was largely a reaction to domestic criticism of its failure to capture two suspected North Korean spy ships that fled Japanese waters in March 1999.
Last year, Japan briefly suspended economic aid to China after a series of incidents in which Chinese survey vessels entered Japan’s coastal waters without notice.
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