Hanoi: Vietnam has asked China for the unconditional release of nine fishermen detained last month near disputed islands, Vietnamese media reported on Wednesday, raising tension a week before regional defence ministers meet.
Chinese embassy officers in Hanoi told Vietnamese Foreign Ministry officials the sailors had broken the law by fishing with explosives and would be released with their boat only after the captain paid a fine, Vietnamese state media reported.
The report comes shortly after ties between Japan and China were strained by a dispute over a collision between boats near tiny islands in the East China Sea claimed by both China and Japan.
Vietnamese officials dismissed China`s accusation against the fishermen as "absurd" and said the crew and boat, detained on September 11, had been "operating normally in the seas around the Paracel Islands, which fall under Vietnam`s sovereignty."
The dispute highlights mounting tension over China`s assertiveness in the potentially oil-rich South China Sea, where China, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and Taiwan all have competing claims.
The Vietnam-China dispute could add fuel to discussions when defence ministers from the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations plus eight other countries, including China, Japan and the United States, meet in Hanoi next week.
"The Foreign Ministry again requested the Chinese side ... immediately and unconditionally release all fishermen and the boat," Vietnamplus.vn, a website of the state-run Vietnam News Agency, said in a report.
It said Vietnamese and Chinese officials had met several times since the boat was captured. On September 21, the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry`s consular department sent a formal diplomatic note to the Chinese embassy.
Scores of Vietnamese fishermen have been detained by Chinese maritime patrols over the years in the South China Sea, according to Vietnamese media.
Analysts say China appears to have intensified the campaign in recent months, hardening its tone on the importance of its territorial claims in the waters.
The Vietnamese Foreign Ministry did not have an immediate comment on the case.
Many in Vietnam watched closely as China reacted angrily when Japan detained a Chinese boat and crew in early September for allegedly ramming Japanese patrol boats near disputed islands in the East China Sea.
Japan released the crew and then the captain after coming under heavy pressure and threats from China.