PUERTO PRINCESA CITY—Defense officials and investigators looking into the grounding of a Chinese fishing boat on an atoll in Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park may not be dealing with an accident but an intrusion.
A defense official told the Inquirer on Friday that the investigation has found “some facts that don’t add up.”
For example, the 48-meter Ming Long Yu is supposed to be a fishing vessel but it is not fitted to hold fish.
“It is not even loaded with ice, which is normal to a fishing operation,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, as he had no authorization to talk to journalists about the investigation.
Angelique Songco, Tubbataha marine park superintendent, confirmed that the Ming Long Yu had no equipment and facilities for fish storage, such as ice makers and refrigerated holds.
The absence of those capabilities indicates that the Ming Long Yu is not a fishing vessel and that the 12 men who have been arrested and charged with poaching and bribery are not fishermen but intruders who have come with a purpose other than fishing.
Are they spies?
But the defense source said the investigators were not ready to make that conclusion or decide the nature of the vessel’s grounding on the northern atoll of Tubbataha Reefs, a protected marine sanctuary in a remote area of the Sulu Sea.
Reporters asked Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin if he thought the 12 Chinese nationals were spies. He said that might be the subject of an investigation.
Gazmin said it would be unfair to accuse the 12 men of being spies without sufficient basis.
He said he hoped the grounding of the Ming Long Yu days after the removal of the USS Guardian, a US Navy minesweeper, from Tubbataha was only “coincidental.”
But the grounding of two foreign vessels one after the other in Tubbataha should be looked into, Gazmin said.
The Philippine Navy is investigating the Jan. 17 grounding of the USS Guardian and the April 8 grounding of the Ming Long Yu but the intelligence community may also investigate, Gazmin said.
As for what the 12 men of the Ming Long Yu really are, Gazmin said: “We also have our intelligence community that can look into these and analyze and see if indeed they are genuine fishermen or disguised as fishermen.”
Francis Chua, the interpreter hired by the Philippine Coast Guard to talk to the 12 Chinese nationals, stated in his affidavit, a copy of which was obtained by the Inquirer, that the men claimed they were sailing to China from Indonesia but lost their way and ended up with their vessel jammed onto an atoll in Tubbataha.
Chua stated that the Chinese claimed they were based in Fujian, China.
“I asked them many questions but they were hesitant to answer,” Chua said.
He said the 12 men had no passports or identification cards.
Not like fishermen
Songco said the 12 men did not look like “typical poachers” familiar to marine park rangers. Their physical features are different from Chinese fishermen arrested in the past for poaching in Palawan, she said, but did not elaborate.
Songco said the investigators have sent samples of chemical substances found on the vessel to a laboratory for examination “to determine if those are noxious substances.”
The 12 men are detained at the provincial jail in Palawan, which has jurisdiction over Tubbataha Reefs, where the supposed fishermen claimed their vessel was tossed by rough seas on Monday night.
The Tubbataha Management Office brought poaching charges against the 12 men on Tuesday. The next day, it brought bribery charges against them for offering marine park rangers $2,400 to release them.
Two officials from the Chinese Embassy traveled to Puerto Princesa City on Tuesday and tried but failed to secure the release of the 12 men.
Malacañang on Friday played down the reported intervention by two Chinese embassy officials. Strategic Communications Secretary Ricky Carandang said Chinese Consul General Shen Zicheng and Third Secretary Li Jian were only trying to help the fishermen, who were charged with poaching in the protected marine sanctuary.
“The Chinese officials were only trying to assist their citizens,” Carandang said in a text message.
“For our part, we are only enforcing our laws in our territory,” he added.
Shen and Li tried to talk marine park and security officials into releasing the fishermen, whose 48-meter, steel-hulled boat ran aground on the northern atoll of Tubbataha Reefs on Monday night.
But the pleas of the two diplomats were “quietly turned down,” a member of the Tubbataha Management Board said.
Songco said by phone that she did not see the visit of Shen and Li as an overture to get the 12 men freed.
She said, however, that she approached Shen during the inquest proceedings at the prosecutor’s office on Wednesday to ask him for help in removing the Ming Long Yu from Tubbataha.
She said Shen told her that the vessel owner was a private company and that he did not know how to get in touch with the company.
But a Coast Guard ship and a salvor vessel are sailing to Palawan to look at the Ming Long Yu and plan its extraction from the reef.
Commodore Enrico Efren Evangelista said the weather at Tubbataha remained favorable for the salvage operations, which were expected to take a week to complete.
Evangelista said one option was to refloat the vessel by lightening its load, including siphoning off 80,000 liters of diesel fuel.
He said the vessel’s hull was intact and there was no sign of an oil spill.
He identified the salvor as the Malayan Towage and Salvaging Corp.
Bishop Pedro Arigo of Palawan said the grounding of the Ming Long Yu was an unfortunate incident and called on the government to tighten security in the marine sanctuary to prevent groundings of foreign vessels on the reefs.
In a message posted on the Internet news service of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, Arigo acknowledged that the government lacked resources to enforce maritime laws in the area.
But Arigo said he hoped the government would give the Coast Guard additional funds and modern equipment to enable it to keep poachers and other intruders out of Tubbataha. With reports from Nikko Dizon, TJ Burgonio, Jocelyn R. Uy and Philip C. Tubeza