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The Associated Press February 22, 2010, 10:39AM ET

NZ tries diplomacy first to end Japan whale hunt

New Zealand said Monday it may join Australia in seeking international legal action against Japan over its annual whale hunt in the Antarctic if negotiations fail to produce a diplomatic solution.

Australia's Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said Friday his government would take Japan to international court over its research whaling program that kills hundreds of whales a year if Tokyo does not agree to stop the hunt by November.

Australia, a staunch anti-whaling nation, has long threatened international legal action.

New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully said Monday a diplomatic solution would be quicker -- and therefore save more whales -- than pursuing a case in the International Court of Justice at The Hague, which could take years to resolve.

Diplomatic negotiations likely will be complete within weeks, McCully said.

"We'll know soon whether we are going to achieve success that way or not," he said. "If not, the court process is obviously a serious option."

He gave no details of the negotiations, believed to revolve around having Japan end its Antarctic whale hunt while still being allowed to kill minke whales in the north Pacific Ocean.

Prime Minister John Key also backed a diplomatic resolution to Japan's whaling in the waters off Antarctica, saying New Zealand may only resort to court action if it fails.

"Either the diplomatic solution is going to be a stunning success in the next few months or it's going to be a stunning failure," Key told the NewstalkZB radio network.

If a "diplomatic solution fails and the only option available is a court action, at that time we will consider whether we'll join Australia, but I wouldn't want to jump to conclusions that we would," Key said.

Australia also was still pursuing a diplomatic outcome, "and that is why they're holding off from taking a court case before November," he told reporters.

Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada said Sunday that Tokyo will defend its hunt in any legal forum, saying it is an allowed exception to the International Whaling Commission's 1986 ban on commercial whaling.

Speaking after meeting with his Australian counterpart Stephen Smith, he said it was unfortunate Australia had indicated it would take international court action.

Smith said the Australian government also has decided to present a proposal to the International Whaling Commission asking that Japan's whaling program be stopped within a "reasonable period of time."

Smith restated if an agreement between the countries isn't reached, Australia will seek arbitration in the International Court of Justice.

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