SINGAPORE (AP) — Nine armored personnel carriers belonging to Singapore that were seized in the Chinese territory of Hong Kong will be returned, officials said Tuesday.
The Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong received a letter from Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying saying that Hong Kong had completed an investigation of the SAF Terrex infantry carrier vehicles and other equipment and would release them to the Singapore government.
"This is a positive outcome," the ministry said in a statement. Lee expressed gratitude for "Hong Kong's cooperation in resolving this matter," it said.
Customs authorities in Hong Kong seized the eight-wheeled Terrex infantry carriers in November. The vehicles were being shipped back to Singapore following military training exercises in Taiwan.
Experts said the seizure could signal China's unhappiness with Singapore's positions on Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea and on Taiwan, which Beijing considers part of China.
Although not one of the rival claimants in the South China Sea, Singapore has irritated China by advocating that the claimants abide by international rules. China claims most of the strategic waterway despite a landmark ruling by an international tribunal in July that invalidated those claims.
Roy Tang, Hong Kong's commissioner for the Customs and Excise Department, said Tuesday the seizure was the "result of a suspected breach of Hong Kong law." He added that authorities may start criminal proceedings against the private carrier involved.
In early January, Singapore Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen said the vehicles belonged to the government and should be returned immediately under sovereign immunity laws.
Singaporeans protested the delay with songs demanding the vehicles' return before the Lunar New Year. Going by superstition, having a debt during the festivities is bad luck.
"SAF Terrexes are coming home to Singapore. Looking forward to this happy reunion with all Singaporeans in the Year of the Rooster," Ng said in a Facebook post.
Associated Press writer Kelvin Chan in Hong Kong contributed to this report.