MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Two Vietnamese fishermen were found dead and five others were taken into custody after they were spotted fishing off the northwestern Philippines, sparking a night chase where a Vietnamese boat hit a Philippine navy ship and prompted its crew to fire shots, officials said Sunday.
Philippine navy information officer Lt. Jose Covvarubias said the five Vietnamese, along with their two dead fellow fishermen, were turned over to Filipino police authorities after the early Saturday incident off Bolinao town in northwestern Pangasinan province.
A Philippine security official told The Associated Press the incident unfolded closer to the Philippine coast and was not related to the main territorial disputes farther out in the South China Sea. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the Department of Foreign Affairs in Manila was the one authorized to speak on the issue.
Still, the deadly incident underscores the danger that lurks due to overlapping territorial claims in a region where competition is heavy for fish, oil, gas and other maritime resources. In 2013, Philippine coast guard personnel opened fire and killed a Taiwanese fisherman on board a boat that sailed in waters between the northern Philippines and Taiwan, sparking protests in Taiwan. Taiwan imposed sanctions before the row was diplomatically resolved.
Covvarubias said details remained sketchy and that an investigation was underway. It was not immediately clear if the two Vietnamese died from gunshot wounds or other causes.
"The information that we got is a Vietnamese fishing boat hit the navy ship," Covvarubias said, adding that "a Vietnamese fishing vessel was being apprehended" when the confrontation happened.
The security official said a Philippine navy patrol ship, PS19, spotted six suspected Vietnamese fishing vessels using powerful lights to attract fish more than 30 nautical miles (55 kilometers) from Bolinao town.
The use of such fishing accessory, known locally as "superlights," is prohibited under Philippine law.
The six fishing vessels fled but one maneuvered and hit the Philippine navy ship, prompting its crew to fire warning shots during the commotion," the official said, adding that two Vietnamese fishermen were later found dead and five others were arrested.
The Filipino navy personnel "followed the rules of engagement, including identification protocol and use of radio and public address system," the official said, adding that the Vietnamese fishing boat was towed to Pangasinan after the incident.
Vietnamese Embassy officials were not immediately available for comment.
Covvarubias said the incident happened within the 200-nautical-mile (370-kilometer) Exclusive Economic Zone of the Philippines, a stretch of ocean where a coastal state has exclusive rights to fish and exploit other sea resources although foreign ships could pass through.