Philippines furious over fatal South China Sea collision

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Singapore: Leaders in the Philippines have condemned as deplorable the ramming of a fishing vessel in the South China Sea that left three fishermen dead, as President Ferdinand Marcos jnr vowed to hold those responsible to account.

The fatal collision occurred in waters off Scarborough Shoal, the disputed atoll that has been the site of an escalating row between Manila and Beijing over maritime territory.

A body is returned to shore after an incident in which three were killed in waters off Scarborough Shoal.

The Philippine Coast Guard initially announced that an “unidentified commercial vessel” had hit the Filipino fishing boat. Authorities later said an oil tanker registered to the Marshall Islands was suspected of striking it, killing the men.

“We are deeply saddened by the deaths of the three fishermen, including the captain of the fishing vessel,” Marcos said on Wednesday.

“We assure the victims, their families, and everyone that we will exert every effort to hold accountable those who are responsible for this unfortunate maritime incident.”

In a statement, Manila’s coast guard said the crude oil tanker Pacific Anna had accidentally collided with a fishing mother ship on Monday while it was moored at an artificial reef 85 nautical miles north-west of Bajo de Masinloc, the Filipino name for Scarborough Shoal.

Eleven members of the crew survived as the boat sank. They returned along with the bodies of the deceased on service boats to shore on the Philippines’ main island of Luzon.

“The crew said it was dark, the weather was bad and it was raining, said Alex Corpuz, Philippine Coast Guard station commander in the coastal province of Pangasinan. “Our investigation is ongoing. We have sent a team there to get more information from the crew.”

While the incident was not the flare-up feared amid friction over China’s assertive claims to most of the South China Sea, it has rocked the Philippines, an archipelagic nation where fishing is way of life for many.

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos jnr vowed to hold those responsible to account.Credit: Reuters

“I condemn in the strongest possible terms the ramming of ship Pacific Anna, registered in the Marshall Islands, into a Filipino fishing boat, killing three of our citizens,” said Philippine senator Risa Hontiveros. “It is deplorable that the vessel left the Filipino fishing boat and our citizens in the water. This despicable act is an affront to all Filipinos.”

Philippine Senate president Juan Miguel Zubiri was also “extremely outraged and aggrieved by the fatal ramming”, he said.

“We will not rest until we get to the bottom of this incident … we must figure out whether there was any attempt to assist our fisherfolk at all, as should have been done under international humanitarian laws.”

The Philippine Coast Guard said the crew on the fishing boat had not noticed the oil tanker approaching because of adverse weather conditions.

The collision took place just a week after the Philippine Coast Guard removed a 300-metre floating barrier that had been placed at the entrance to Scarborough Shoal by the Chinese coast guard.

Filipino fishermen and coast guards after the incident in waters off Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. Credit: Philippine Coast Guard

Scarborough Shoal lies within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone and was for generations ventured into by Filipino fishermen. However, the triangle-shaped collection of reefs and rocks has become largely off limits to them, having been seized by China in 2012 after a stand-off.

The shoal, located about 220 kilometres west of the Philippine mainland, is now regularly patrolled by Chinese coast guard and Chinese trawlers suspected to be part of Beijing’s maritime militia.

After the cutting of the floating barrier last week, Philippines officials have made clear they want to retake control of Scarborough Shoal.

“We’re not looking for trouble but what we’ll do is to continue defending the maritime territory of the Philippines and the rights of our fishermen, who have been fishing in those areas for hundreds of years,” Marcos said last week.

In a 2019 incident at Reed Bank in the South China Sea, 22 Filipino fishermen were rescued at sea by a Vietnamese crew after their wooden boat was rammed by a Chinese vessel.

The owner of the Chinese boat said at the time it was an accident and apologised, but there was anger in the Philippines about the fishermen being left to float in the water for three hours after their boat sank.

with Jeoffrey Maitem

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