By Anshuman Daga
SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Hong Kong is to release armored vehicles belonging to Singapore impounded in the Chinese-ruled city on their way home from military exercises in Taiwan, Singapore said on Tuesday.
Hong Kong customs seized the troop carriers in November. Beijing, which regained sovereignty over the former British colony of Hong Kong in 1997, then warned countries against maintaining military ties with Taiwan.
Singapore's foreign affairs ministry said Hong Kong authorities would release the Singapore Armed Forces' troop carriers and other equipment to the Singapore government but the ministry did not give details.
Hong Kong's commissioner of Customs and Excise, Roy Tang, said in a statement the vehicles were seized because of "a suspected breach of the Hong Kong law".
"Hong Kong Customs has completed its investigation of the suspected breach. The investigation might lead to criminal prosecution," Tang was quoted as saying, while adding:
"The military vehicles and the associated equipment will be returned to Singapore through the carrier."
The seizure of the vehicles came amid mounting regional uncertainty and signs of tension between China and Singapore, which has deepened its security relationship with the United States over the last year and remains concerned over China's assertive territorial stance in the South China Sea.
Singapore and Taiwan have a military relationship dating to the 1970s, involving the use of Taiwan for Singapore infantry training.
Beijing has grudgingly tolerated this agreement since re-establishing diplomatic ties in the 1990s with Singapore, which recognizes Beijing's "one China" policy that says Taiwan is part of its territory.
But China has repeatedly warned Singapore to stay out of the South China Sea dispute, where China's claims overlap with those of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
Singapore has no claims in the South China Sea, but the open economy of Southeast Asia's biggest port depends on free navigation in the area.
The notification of the expected release of the carriers came in a reply by Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying to a letter from Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who had requested their return.
"This is a positive outcome," the Singapore foreign ministry said, adding that Lee had replied to Leung to thank him for Hong Kong's cooperation in resolving this matter.
Beijing regards Taiwan as a breakaway province and objects to countries having dealings with it.
(Additional reporting by Venus Wu in HONG KONG; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Robert Birsel)