Philippines nabs 11 Chinese poachers
MANILA, Philippines—Philippine maritime police seized a Chinese fishing vessel found carrying sea turtles off Hasa-Hasa Shoal (Half Moon Shoal) in disputed waters of the West Philippine Sea on Tuesday, in the latest escalation of the increasingly bitter territorial dispute between Manila and Beijing.
The seizure of the Chinese vessel angered China, which demanded the release of the boat and its crew. China claims the shoal is part of its territory.
But the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said the arrest of the Chinese fishermen was an exercise of the Philippines’ sovereignty over its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the West Philippine Sea.
The Philippine National Police Maritime Group detained the 11-member crew of the 15-ton Chinese vessel after finding nearly 400 live sea turtles aboard the boat, Chief Supt. Reuben Theodore Sindac, PNP spokesman, said on Wednesday.
Five Filipino fishermen were also arrested in the area after maritime police found 70 live sea turtles on their boat, Sindac said.
Chief Supt. Noel Lazarus Vargas, PNP Maritime Group director, said the maritime policemen were responding to a report about the presence of unidentified Filipino fishermen near Hasa-Hasa Shoal off Balabac town, Palawan province, on Tuesday morning when they chanced upon the Chinese vessel.
“We just responded to the report of the locals. It is still unclear how the foreign vessel was [intercepted],” Vargas said.
A second boat escaped
News wire agency Reuters reported a senior naval official as saying there were two Chinese boats but the other one escaped.
As of 6 Wednesday night, the boats of the Chinese and Filipino fishermen were still traveling toward Puerto Princesa City, the capital of Palawan where appropriate charges will be filed against them. Palawan is 100 km from the Hasa-Hasa Shoal.
Sindac said the Chinese vessel was marked “09063” and was skippered by Chen Hi Quan. Seized from the vessel were 120 live and 234 dead turtles, he said.
He identified the skipper of the small boat carrying the Filipino fishermen as Romantic Banto Amlain.
Vargas said officials of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) would make an inventory of the seized turtles.
“The BFAR and DENR personnel will tag each of the evidence recovered from the boats, which will be used as evidence against the arrested fishermen,” Vargas said.
He said charges of violating the Philippine Wildlife Act would be brought against the Chinese and Filipino fishermen in the prosecutor’s office in Puerto Princesa.
‘Explain,’ China says
But China angrily responded that it had “undisputable sovereignty” over Ban Yue Reef, the Chinese name for Hasa-Hasa Shoal, and urged the Philippines to “stop taking further provocative action.”
“Relevant authorities from China have arrived at the scene,” Beijing’s foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying told a regular press briefing on Wednesday.
“We ask the Philippine side to give their explanation and deal with this case properly,” Hua said.
“We ask the Philippine side to release the vessel and crew, and we urge the Philippine side to stop taking further provocative action,” she said.
Responding in Manila, the DFA said the maritime police were enforcing Philippine wildlife laws when they seized the Chinese vessel in the West Philippine Sea, waters within the Philippines’ 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
“The seizing of the Chinese fishing boat, carrying large numbers of endangered species, and the apprehension of its crew by the Philippine National Police Maritime Group Special Boat Unit were undertaken as actions to enforce maritime laws and to uphold Philippine sovereign rights over its EEZ,” the DFA said in a statement.
The department said the authorities in Palawan would deal with the case “in a just, humane and expeditious manner.”
Seized by ‘armed men’
The apprehension of the Chinese vessel and its crew was reported in Beijing on Wednesday as a “seizure” perpetrated by “armed men not far from the Philippines.”
“Several armed men forced themselves onto the boat and fired four or five shots in the air. They then took control of the boat,” the Chinese state news agency Xinhua said.
Xinhua identified the vessel as the Qionggionghai 09063. It said contact with the 11 fishermen was lost after the interception of the boat.
The Chinese Embassy in Manila had no immediate comment on the latest incident in the territorial dispute between the Philippines and China in the South China Sea.
Lying around 111 km west of Palawan, Hasa-Hasa Shoal is located on the eastern edge of the Spratly archipelago, a chain of islands, islets, reefs and shoals believed to be sitting atop vast oil and natural gas reserves.
China’s insistence that it owns all of the Spratlys and nearly the whole South China Sea—including the West Philippine Sea—has set it against the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan, all of which claim parts of the strategic waterway through which passes a third of annual global cargo.
The Philippines has taken its territorial dispute with China to the United Nations for arbitration, while Vietnam has sent out naval vessels to prevent a Chinese oil rig from setting up in the Paracels, in the part of the South China Sea within Hanoi’s own EEZ.
Standoff in Paracels
Vietnamese and Chinese vessels collided in the area as a result of the standoff on May 4, but no guns were fired or injuries reported, according to a Vietnamese official.
The incidents came days after US President Barack Obama visited Asia to underline his commitment to allies in the region, including the Philippines and Japan, which is also locked in a territorial dispute with China in the East China Sea.
Obama, promoting a strategic “pivot” toward the Asia-Pacific region, also visited South Korea and Malaysia, but not China.—With a report from AFP
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