MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The Philippines said Wednesday it seized a Chinese fishing boat and its 11 crewmen on charges of catching endangered sea turtles in disputed South China Sea waters, prompting China to demand their release and accuse Manila of being provocative.
The boat was loaded with more than 350 endangered turtles that were confiscated when it was seized near territory known as Half Moon Shoal, Philippine maritime police Chief Superintendent Noel Vargas said.
China demanded that the Philippines release the boat, and Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying urged Manila to "stop taking further provocative actions."
The Philippine government said its maritime police seized the Chinese fishing boat and apprehended its crewmen "to enforce maritime laws and to uphold Philippine sovereign rights" over its exclusive economic zone.
It is the latest territorial spat between the two Asian nations, which have had increasingly tense disputes over two shoals and other areas of the South China Sea.
China earlier said via state media that Chinese officials lost contact with 11 fishermen after they were intercepted by armed men near Half Moon Shoal not far from the Philippines.
The shoal, called Hasa Hasa in the Philippines, is claimed by China 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 and is locked in an increasingly heated dispute with the Philippines, Vietnam and others over rights to energy resources, fishing grounds and island outposts.
Vargas said the Chinese boat will be taken to the western Philippine province of Palawan, about 110 kilometers (70 miles) from Half Moon Shoal, and the fishermen will face charges of violating Philippine laws prohibiting catches of endangered green sea turtles.
Another boat with Philippine fishermen was also caught in the area with 70 turtles aboard, and those fishermen will face the same charges, Vargas said.
China's official Xinhua News Agency said the Chinese fishermen's vessel was intercepted on Tuesday by armed men who fired warning shots in the air. An official from the Fishing Port Monitoring Center at Tanmen in China's Hainan province confirmed the report. He said he had no other details and declined to give his name, as is common among Chinese bureaucrats.
A Chinese frigate became stuck in the shallows of Half Moon Shoal while on a security patrol in 2012, prompting China to send rescue vessels.
Bodeen reported from Beijing. Associated Press writer Louise Watt in Beijing contributed to this report.