MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Philippine authorities are investigating whether 11 detained Chinese fishermen entered the country's waters illegally to catch endangered turtles, police said Thursday, despite a Chinese demand for their immediate release.
Police detained the fishermen and their boat, which allegedly contained more than 350 green sea turtles, in a disputed area called Half Moon Shoal, sparking the latest spat between the Asian nations in the increasingly volatile South China Sea.
China pressed the Philippine government to free the fishermen and the boat, warning Manila on Thursday not to take any more "provocative actions so as to avoid further damage to bilateral relations."
Asked if the Philippines would heed China's demand, national police chief Alan Purisima said the fishermen will be investigated by an inter-agency committee to determine if they committed any crimes, including illegal entry and catching an endangered species.
He said maritime police will increase security patrols at Half Moon Shoal, called Hasa Hasa in the Philippines. China claims the submerged coral outcrop, 110 kilometers (70 miles) from the western Philippine province of Palawan, belongs to it.
"That is their assertion," Purisima told a news conference. "Our assertion is, that it is ours, that it is Philippine territory."
Five Filipino fishermen were caught separately near the shoal with about 70 endangered turtles in their boat, and they will also be investigated, Purisima said.
Philippine maritime police Chief Superintendent Noel Vargas said his men were led to the Chinese vessel while following Filipino fishermen suspected of being involved in the illegal turtle trade. The Filipinos traveled to Half Moon Shoal where they transferred their cargo of turtles to the Chinese vessel, he said.
Vargas said his men did not fire warning shots as claimed by Chinese authorities while apprehending the Chinese fishermen. He said the Philippine police vessel towed the Chinese fishing boat, which had a broken rudder.
The Department of Foreign Affairs said the Chinese fishermen were apprehended "to enforce maritime laws and to uphold Philippine sovereign rights" over its exclusive economic zone.
China fired back, saying the "provocative action" was "premeditated in an attempt to create tensions and severely violates China's sovereignty and maritime rights."
The shoal, called Banyue Reef in China, is claimed by Beijing as part of the Nansha island chain, known internationally as the Spratly Islands. The Spratlys are a major cluster of potentially oil- and gas-rich islands and reefs long disputed by China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei. China lays claim to virtually the entire South China Sea.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki urged China and the Philippines to resolve the rift diplomatically and voiced concern that the vessels appeared to have been catching an endangered species.