Tokyo has been criticized by environmental groups for its weak presence and slow response in tackling an oil spill disaster caused by a Japanese freighter that ran aground off Mauritius in the Indian Ocean last month.

On Aug. 10, four days after oil started to leak from the Wakashio vessel, Japan dispatched a six-member relief team, but the government has maintained a distant attitude about the crisis compared with countries such as France and India, according to the groups and local residents in Mauritius.

"The Japanese government seems to be on the defensive, perhaps due to fears of damages claims," said Kanna Mitsuta, executive director of nongovernmental organization Friends of the Earth Japan, a member of Friends of the Earth International.

"It may not be legally responsible for the disaster, as the freighter was Panamanian-flagged, but it is effectively a Japanese one, as it was operated and owned by Japanese shipping companies," she said. "The government should get more involved as if it was its own problem."

Mitsuta also said Japan can also play an active role by sharing its experience and expertise in dealing with maritime accidents.

The bulk carrier Wakashio, owned by Nagashiki Shipping Co. and operated by Mitsui OSK Lines Ltd., was carrying a total of some 3,800 tons of fuel oil and 200 tons of diesel when it ran aground near Pointe d'Esny, which is designated as a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention, on July 25.

Leakage began on Aug. 6 when one of the five fuel tanks suffered a crack. Mitsui OSK said more than 1,000 tons of fuel oil has leaked from the vessel, which was en route to Brazil from China via Singapore.

Desperate efforts are underway to contain the oil spill that is polluting the small island's iconic reefs and protected ecosystems. It has muddied crystal-clear waters, damaged coral reefs, mangroves and white sand beaches.

The crisis deals a heavy blow to the country's tourism industry, already hurt by the coronavirus pandemic. Experts say they fear it will take decades for the environment to recover from the damage.

Mauritius declared a state of environmental emergency on Aug. 7, citing the possible impact on endangered animals such as indigenous wild birds and sea turtles.

The first reaction from a high-ranking Japanese official came on Aug. 11 from Kazuyoshi Akaba, minister of land, infrastructure, transport and tourism. "We regret all the great worries and trouble (over the oil leak). We will give all-out efforts to support (Mauritius)," he said at a news conference.

Four days later, Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi also said at a news conference: "It is a serious crisis that leads to a loss of biodiversity. The Environment Ministry cannot just sit on the sidelines."

The government on Wednesday dispatched a second disaster relief team to Mauritius consisting of seven members, including officials from the Environment Ministry and the National Institute for Environmental Studies, to help clean up oil and assist in grasping the environmental damage from the incident.

Members of the first response team, comprising officials from the Foreign Ministry, the Japan Coast Guard and the Japan International Cooperation Agency, told reporters online Tuesday that their activities have been restrained due to the coronavirus pandemic and that Mauritius was requesting more personnel to deal with the crisis.

Meanwhile, France and India have swiftly responded to the oil spill with a bigger presence, due in part to their strong historical ties to the island country. France ruled Mauritius in the 18th and 19th centuries, while the island nation is home to many Indian immigrants.

On Aug. 8, French President Emanuel Macron said on Twitter: "When biodiversity is in danger, there is an urgent need to act. France is there. Alongside the Mauritian people."

He assured Mauritian Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth: "You can count on our support dear @PKJugnauth. We are now deploying teams and equipment from Reunion Island."

France has dispatched a military ship and an aircraft carrying experts and specialized equipment. The island, a part of French territory, is located some 180 kilometers southwest of Mauritius.

On Sunday, French Minister of Outer Islands Sebastien Lecornu made a single-day visit to Mauritius, representing Macron, to discuss with Jugnauth anti-pollution measures following the oil spill.

The prime minister "commended the promptness with which the country has sent assistance in terms of expertise and equipment following the request of Mauritius," according to the Mauritius government.

On Sunday, India sent over 30 tons of specialized technical equipment, including oil absorbent pads, power packs and blowers, on an Air Force aircraft. A 10-member technical response team, consisting of Indian Coast Guard personnel, specially trained in containing oil spills, arrived on the same aircraft, it said.

Mauritius has arrested the captain of the Japanese freighter, an Indian national, along with a Sri Lankan crew member, on suspicion of negligence in operating the vessel, local authorities said Tuesday. The ship may have sailed close to the coast of Mauritius to get Wi-Fi connection, according to a local newspaper.

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