Filipino fishermen have returned to Panatag Shoal, sharing the disputed waters with their Chinese counterparts under the careful watch of Philippine and Chinese maritime ships, a military official said Sunday.
Lieutenant General Anthony Alcantara, chief of the Northern Luzon Command (Nolcom), reported that six Filipino fishing boats were anchored Sunday in the lagoon in the middle of a cluster of reefs and islands in the area, internationally known as Scarborough Shoal, 220 kilometers west of Zambales.
It was the first time the military reported the presence of Filipino fishermen in the area since tensions began on April 10 when two Chinese surveillance ships stopped the Philippine Navy from accosting eight Chinese fishing boats loaded with poached marine life.
Alcantara played down the return of the Filipinos, saying they have the right to fish at Panatag, which China claims is part of its territory.
“We never banned our fisherfolks from fishing there. These are our natural fishing grounds. We’ve been fishing there for a long time,” Alcantara said in an interview over dzBB radio.
He also stressed that Filipinos should not hesitate to go to Panatag. “Our Coast Guard is ready to help and protect the interests of our fishermen in that area,” he said.
‘Very stable’ situation
Alcantara said the situation at Panatag was “very stable.”
“No unusual incident has been reported to us,” he said, adding that a Coast Guard search and rescue vessel, BRP Pampanga, or SARV 003, and the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) vessel, MCS3001, were still in the waters. He declined to give specifics of the BFAR vessel although in its previous operations enforcing fishing laws Coast Guard personnel were reported on board.
“Two Chinese surveillance ships, one is number 71, the other is undetermined, are also still there. One of them is located 3 nautical miles (5.4 km), south of the entrance of the shoal, while the other is 12 nautical miles (21.6 km) east of (SARV) 003,” he said.
China’s biggest and most advanced maritime surveillance ship, the FLEC 310, also called Yuzheng 310, has not been sighted in the area. FLEC 310 reportedly brushed past the Filipino ships on Saturday morning in what Philippine officials described as harassment.
“It is assumed (the FLEC 310) is somewhere else beyond our Coast Guard’s visual contact. That’s the situation. We are continuously monitoring the situation,” Alcantara said. He declined further comment, saying he had yet to receive a report on this from the Coast Guard.
“What we can say at Nolcom, our Armed Forces is prepared to help our Coast Guard assert our claims on Scarborough Shoal. We believe it is ours and we have to assert our sovereignty in this place,” he said.
“What’s clear is it’s part of our exclusive economic zone, according to UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. That’s very clear,” he said.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines, the Coast Guard, the Maritime Group of the Philippine National Police and other agencies have roles to protect Philippine interests in the area, Alcantara said. “We are helping each other out, all of us. We are in the same boat.”
Originally posted: 4:38 pm | Sunday, April 29th, 2012