President Rodrigo Duterte on Wednesday released five Vietnamese fishermen who were detained for suspected poaching two months ago, as he assured Hanoi that bilateral ties were “very strong” despite frequent territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
The fishermen were arrested in September off Cape Bolinao in the northern Philippines.
Duterte apologized while bidding the fishermen farewell during a ceremonial send-off, as they left the Philippines to return to Vietnam.
“I’d like to address our Vietnamese friends that we are one, we are Asians. I’m sorry for the incident. I hope it would never happen again,” Duterte said as he turned the five fishermen over to Vietnamese envoy Ly Quoc Tuan in the northern port of Sual.
“But these incidents will not destroy our bond of relationship. It’s very strong,” Duterte said in a speech broadcast live on nationwide television.
According to the Department of Foreign Affairs, the foreign fishermen were arrested on Sept. 22 after a Philippine Navy patrol vessel chased six Vietnamese boats fishing within the country’s exclusive economic zone about 34 nautical miles (63 km) off Cape Bolinao in the northern province of Pangasinan.
During the chase, one of the fishing boats “initiated very dangerous maneuvers” and slammed into the Navy patrol vessel, forcing its personnel to fire warning shots, the department said.
It said Philippine officers found two Vietnamese fishermen dead when they boarded the fishing vessel, adding that five others were taken into custody. Officials did not provide more details.
Duterte told ambassador Tuan that he could reach out personally to him in case a similar incident happened again, so that both sides could quickly move to de-escalate tensions.
“And we commit to the ambassador that the next time, kindly give me a call personally and I will do the same to your president,” Duterte said.
But while incidents like this “will happen and happen again,” Duterte said his government would “shorten the period” of detention for illegal fishermen caught at sea.
It was the second time for Duterte to appear in a send-off ceremony for Vietnamese fishermen.
Eduardo Gongona, chief of the Philippine Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, said the impoverished fishermen had appealed for leniency and were released based on “humanitarian considerations.”
The Philippines and Vietnam are among six nations that have territorial claims in the South China Sea. The others are Brunei, China, Malaysia and Taiwan.
Fishermen from claimant nations have often been arrested for straying too close to each other’s shores, fueling tensions and complicating the territorial conflict.
In November last year, Duterte also freed 17 Vietnamese fishermen who had spent two months in detention after Coast Guard officials detained them on charges of poaching in Philippine waters.