China releases 9 Vietnamese fishermen

Vietnam says `unconditional` release was an expression of China`s goodwill.

Hanoi: China has freed nine Vietnamese fishermen held for the past one month after they were caught in disputed South China Sea waters, Vietnam`s Minister of Defence Phung Quang Thanh said on Tuesday.

Thanh said the release came "unconditionally" and was an expression of China`s goodwill.

"We appreciated it," Thanh told reporters on the sidelines of inaugural talks by regional defence ministers, where the South China Sea was a key issue.

Vietnam last week called for release of the fishing boat and its crew that were captured while fishing in the Paracels, a South China Sea archipelago occupied by China but claimed by Vietnam.

Vietnam and China are engaged in a long-running dispute over control of the Paracels and a more southerly archipelago, the Spratlys.

Since last year, Vietnam has reported numerous cases of fishing boats and equipment being seized by China.

Taiwan also claims the Paracels and has a claim to the Spratlys, as do ASEAN members the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.

Territorial disputes in Asia-Pacific waters pose a threat to regional stability, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates warned today at the regional talks, but his Chinese counterpart insisted Beijing`s growing military might is purely defensive.