Manila: Philippine authorities will determine
through "a legal process" whether to return to China several
small fishing boats seized near the disputed Spratly Islands,
an official said on Tuesday.
China has asked the Philippines to return the dinghies,
which the Philippine navy seized last week from the Reed Bank
in the South China Sea. China and the Philippines dispute
ownership of the potentially gas-rich bank.
Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez
said a Philippine government interagency committee dealing
with illegal entry would decide what to do with the boats
through "a legal process." It is unclear when a decision will
be reached, he said.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu has said
that China has "indisputable sovereignty" over the contested
region and that the Philippine navy`s action infringed on the
rights of the fishermen who were towing the small boats.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said last
week that a Chinese fishing vessel towing 35 unmanned dinghies
strayed into the country`s territorial waters.
A Philippine navy ship approached but developed a
steering problem, causing it to accidentally ram onto some of
the dinghies, del Rosario said.
The main Chinese vessel then moved away, leaving behind
24 of the dinghies, he said. "No apologies were necessary and
none was given," he said.
Philippine defense department spokesman Zosimo Paredes,
however, has said that the local navy has apologized to the
Chinese Embassy over the incident.
While being towed to the western Philippine province of
Palawan, 16 of the dinghies sank in the rough seas, military
China, the Philippines and four other nations dispute
ownership of the Spratlys. The Philippines, however, says the
Reed Bank is well within its territorial waters and is not a
part of the Spratlys, a claim that Beijing contests.