Philippine fishermen accuse China of firing on vessel

MANILA, Philippines – A group of Filipino fishermen have accused China's coast guard of shooting at their vessel in disputed West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) waters, Philippine authorities said Friday, April 21.

Philippine officials said they were investigating the reported attack on the Princess Johann boat, which the crew said occurred near a Chinese-occupied section of the Spratly archipelago on March 27.  

There were no casualties during the incident, authorities added.

"[Princess Johann] was reportedly fired upon 7 times by a Chinese speedboat with 7 Chinese coast guards on board," a Philippine Coast Guard statement said.

The armed speedboat approached the Filipino vessel after it dropped anchor about 3.7 kilometers off the Chinese side of the Union Banks atoll, it said.

"The crew hid and eventually cut their anchor line and fled the area," the statement added. 

Representatives at the Chinese embassy in Manila could not be reached for comment Friday.

If confirmed, the incident would be the first hostile episode in nearly a year involving the two countries, which have seen warming relations since Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was elected in mid-2016. (READ: Duterte, China envoy dicuss 'proper handling' of sea row)

Both the Philippine coast guard and military are investigating the incident.

"[The Union Banks] is located inside the Philippines' exclusive economic zone," military spokesman Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla said.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea grants coastal states exclusive rights to develop and exploit natural resources in the waters that extend up to 370 kilometers off their coasts.

But China claims most of the South China Sea and in recent years has been building up disputed reefs into artificial islands that can house military facilities.

Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam also claim the Spratlys either wholly or in part. 

Reversing the course set by predecessor Benigno Aquino III, Duterte has sought to improve his nation's relations with Beijing by adopting a non-confrontational approach over their competing claims in the strategically vital waters. (READ: 5 ways Duterte can defend Scarborough without going to war

Since then, Duterte said China has allowed Filipinos to fish in waters around the Scarborough Shoal, another outcrop in the South China Sea that Beijing seized in 2012 after a stand-off with the Philippine Navy. –