The Philippines on Monday assured Vietnam that it would carry out an impartial probe into the deaths of two Vietnamese fishermen who were gunned down after a local navy ship fired warning shots during a sea chase at the weekend.
Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said a thorough investigation was being carried out two days after the incident, which occurred about 34 miles off the coast of Cape Bolinao in northern Pangasinan province.
The area was “well within (Manila’s) exclusive economic zone,” Abella said in a statement issued in Manila.
“The incident led to the death of two Vietnamese nationals and the DFA [foreign office] is closely coordinating with the officials of the Vietnamese Embassy in Manila to update them on the developments and to facilitate their access to the five other Vietnamese fishermen taken into custody by the Philippine Navy,” Abella said.
Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano also extended the Philippines’ condolences to his Vietnamese counterpart, Pham Bin Minh, during an informal meeting in New York, where Southeast Asian ministers were attending a meeting of the U.N. General Assembly.
He said the Philippine Navy, the coast guard, as well as the local maritime police have conducted an investigation into the incident.
“We would like to offer our sympathies over the unfortunate loss of life and give you our assurance that we will conduct a fair and thorough investigation into this matter,” Cayetano said.
The police, in a report, said the Vietnamese fishing vessel was allegedly “engaged in illegal fishing” in Philippine waters.
A joint team from the police, the coast guard and the navy saw six Vietnamese fishing vessels in the area. But 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.
An initial investigation by the maritime police showed that the Vietnamese vessel had seven crewmen on board.
Cayetano said the five other arrested Vietnamese fishermen would be treated fairly and that Vietnamese Embassy officials would not be barred from visiting them.
However, the foreign office also said, the Vietnamese boat was clearly at fault and by initiating “very dangerous maneuvers” that led to the incident.
Forty-nine people aboard the Filipino naval vessel, the BRP Malvar, were placed under investigation. It was not clear whether they were restricted to the ship or were apprehended.
In August, the Philippine Coast Guard detained 10 Vietnamese fishermen on suspicion of poaching off a remote southwestern Philippine island after they found 70 dead sharks in their boat.
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.
Frequent arrests of fishermen have often been the cause of tension in the South China Sea, a strategically important and potentially mineral-rich region that straddles vital commercial and fishing lanes.
Felipe Villamor in Manila contributed to this report.