Philippine authorities arrested 14 Vietnamese fishermen on suspicion of poaching, police said Thursday, a few weeks after President Rodrigo Duterte ordered his navy to shoot foreign ships extracting natural resources from the country’s exclusive maritime territory.
The fishermen were caught Wednesday aboard two vessels off the waters of Paluan, in the central province of Occidental Mindoro, Superintendent Imelda Tolentino, the regional police spokeswoman, told reporters.
The detained fishermen were undergoing a thorough interrogation, Tolentino said.
“Joint personnel of Paluan police were conducting seaborne patrol operation, which resulted in the arrest of the suspects on board two fishing vessels while in the act of poaching in territorial waters of Paluan,” she said.
Imelda said the foreigners were detained at the police station in the nearby town of Mamburao and their fishing boats were towed to a municipal port.
Their arrests came after President Duterte last month called on the navy to open fire at foreign ships suspected of poaching or extracting natural resources from the nation’s exclusive waters.
“If you get something there from the economic zone, I will order the navy to fire,” Duterte had said.
Duterte was referring to the country’s 370-km (200-nautical-mile) exclusive economic zone, where coastal states are granted special rights to exploit natural resources under a 1982 U.N. treaty.
He made the comments after his government came under severe criticism from nationalist groups for allowing a Chinese research vessel to explore Philippine Rise, also called Benham Rise, in the Pacific coast to the country’s east.
The United Nations has recognized the 13-hectare undersea feature as a territory of the Philippines, which has competing claims with China and several Southeast Asian countries over the South China Sea off the western side of the archipelago.
While China has not officially laid claims to the vast and mineral-rich region, it has assigned Chinese names to same features, spurring Filipino groups and several politicians to launch protests.
In November last year, Duterte released five Vietnamese fishermen who were arrested two months earlier on suspicion of poaching off the northern Philippine coast. They were turned over to the Vietnamese ambassador, and Duterte had apologized for detaining them.
It was the second time for Duterte to appear in a send-off ceremony for Vietnamese fishermen.
In November 2016, the Philippine government also freed 17 Vietnamese fishermen who had spent two months in jail after Coast Guard officials detained them on charges of poaching.
Six nations – the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, China, Malaysia and Taiwan – have territorial claims in the South China Sea, a potentially mineral-rich region that straddles vital commercial and fishing lanes.
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 September last year, Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano extended the Philippines’ condolences to his Vietnamese counterpart, Pham Bin Minh, during an informal meeting in New York, for the deaths of two Vietnamese fishermen who were gunned down after a local navy ship fired warning shots during a sea chase.
A Philippine police report said the deaths occurred after a joint patrol from the coast guard and the navy saw six Vietnamese fishing vessels about 34 miles off the coast of Cape Bolinao in northern Pangasinan province. One of the fishing vessels immediately turned off its lights and sped off, triggering a chase and prompting the local authorities to fire “warning shots,” the police report said.
Despite numerous and repeated orders through marine-band radio and megaphone to stop fleeing, the Vietnamese vessel initiated a dangerous maneuver and subsequently rammed the Philippine Navy patrol boat in an attempt to escape, the report said.
When the Philippine ship caught up with the Vietnamese boat, Philippine sailors saw “two dead bodies lying on its deck,” it said, adding that the two bore “gunshot wounds” to the head and body, although no contraband were seen inside the Vietnamese vessel, which had seven crewmen.