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Norway's whalers are preparing to slip quietly out of their ports to avoid trouble on Monday, when the much-protested hunting season opens.

Since resuming commercial whale hunts three years ago despite a global ban, this northern country of 4.3 million people has seen demonstrations, boycott threats, confrontations on the high seas and sabotage.It also angered many by quietly lifting a six-year ban on hunting seal pups this year. The arctic hunt for more than 17,000 pups ended early this month.

The protests against whaling have intensified this year with Norway's near doubling of the minke whale quota to 425, up from 232 last year. The United States and several other nations have denounced the hunt, as have an ex-Beatle and his wife.

The first minke whales may already be facing harpoons, since fisheries officials said Wednesday that several of this year's 35-40 boats are allowed to start the hunt at will in the North Sea. Last year, 33 boats took part.

Norway rejects a nonbinding 1986 ban imposed by the International Whaling Commission. The small, oil-rich country claims the minke whales it hunts are plentiful, and that whaling is a responsible use of its natural resources. It agrees, however, that other, endangered whale species should be protected.

Despite defending the hunt, the usually open government appeared skittish about this year's sharply increased quotas, set May 4. It did not announce them, as it routinely did in the past, and only revealed the number after it was leaked to the news media.

"I think it shows how afraid they are," said Katarine Brubakk of Greenpeace Norway. "I think they hope that if they don't put it in writing in a news release, it wouldn't cause trouble."

Halvard Johansen, director of resource management at the Ministry of Fisheries, denied any concern.

"We just didn't see that it served any purpose to announce the whale quota this year. We announced it to those who are involved, the whalers," he said.

The result was what one Norwegian newspaper called "environmental hysteria."

The United States formally protested on Friday, saying commercial whaling already has brought some species near extinction. A bipartisan group of 23 congressmen asked for U.S. trade sanctions if next week's hunt goes off as planned.

Germany's foreign minister demanded an end to whaling and the "gruesome killing of seal pups." New Zealand and England also objected.

Activists apparently tried to sink a Norwegian whaling boat at its wharf this month. Greenpeace is asking contestants in the Eurovision Song contest in Oslo Sunday to protest the hunt.