Nine Vietnamese fishermen whose one-month detainment chafed China-Vietnam relations were back on the same islands at the heart of the dispute Saturday, this time after a Chinese patrol boat rescued them in stormy seas.
China released the men and their boat Monday, and they started their journey home despite warnings of a tropical weather system. The fishermen had not been heard from since leaving, and Vietnam and China agreed to work together on a search and rescue mission.
Le Van Doi, an official from Ly Son island off the coast of central Quang Ngai province where the fishermen live, confirmed the boat captain called his family Saturday to say they were safe and could be home in three days at the earliest.
The online newspaper VnExpress reported that captain Mai Phung Luu was quoted as telling his family that the vessel broke down after traveling 10 nautical miles on Monday.
"We had to navigate the boat through stormy seas with a sail made from blankets and mosquito nets for many days in hungry and thirsty and ragged conditions," he was quoted as telling his family.
The sailors were exhausted when they were spotted by a Chinese patrol boat which towed the battered boat back to the Paracel islands, it said.
China detained the men on Sept. 11 near the disputed islands in the South China Sea. Vietnam demanded they be released immediately without conditions, but China refused until the captain paid a fine for having explosives aboard the boat, a charge Vietnam denied.
Vietnam Television reported that the foreign ministry was in contact with Chinese authorities to bring the fishermen home. Other state media said Vietnam may send a naval ship for them.
Vietnam and China have disputed claims over the Paracels. China forced out the South Vietnamese forces from the islands in 1974, one year before the fall of the U.S.-backed government to the Communist forces, and the islands have since then been occupied by China.
The fishermen's release was announced during a high-profile regional security meeting where defense ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, along with their counterparts from the United States, China, Russia, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, India and South Korea met Tuesday and Wednesday in Vietnam's capital.
Among prominent issues up for discussion was maritime security _ including freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.