Philippine Civilian Boat Convoy Turns Back From Sail To China-Held Reef

(MENAFN- The Peninsula) AFP

SOUTH CHINA SEA: A Philippine boat convoy bearing supplies for Filipino fishers was heading back to port
Thursday, saying they ditched plans to sail to a Beijing-held reef off the Southeast Asian country after one of their boats was shadowed by a Chinese navy ship.

The Atin Ito ("This Is Ours") civilian coalition convoy set sail Wednesday to distribute fuel
and food to fishers and assert Philippine rights in the disputed South China Sea, which Beijing claims nearly entirely despite an international ruling against its assertion.

The voyage comes about two weeks after Manila -- which has competing claims in the sea -- said China Coast Guard vessels damaged two Philippine government boats with high-pressure water cannon near Scarborough Shoal.

"We can say mission success," convoy leader Rafaela David said in a video message broadcast on social media from one of the wooden-hulled supply boats, adding that part of the fleet had breached China's "massive and illegal blockade" and handed out fuel
and food to Filipino fishers.

The convoy also learned from fishers on boats near Scarborough Shoal via radio "that they had been chased away by the Chinese," the non-government group's spokesman Emman Hizon told AFP.

He said the advance team returned to port
on Thursday morning, while the rest of the convoy and their Philippine Coast Guard escort vessel were also on their way back.

AFP journalists joined the escort ship on the voyage.

A reconnaissance flight on Wednesday saw 19 Chinese vessels including a warship and eight coast guard vessels around the shoal, the Philippine Coast Guard said.

The convoy was still being tracked by nearby China Coast Guard vessels Thursday morning as it sailed away from the shoal, it added.

The shadowing began at dusk Wednesday as the boats moved closer to the shoal, with the Chinese vessels issuing warnings that the participants heard on their radios.

Asked about the allegations Chinese vessels drove off Filipino fishers, the Chinese embassy in Manila referred to a foreign ministry spokesman's warning on Wednesday against any attempt to infringe on Beijing's "indisputable sovereignty" over Scarborough Shoal.

Potential flashpoint

The fish-rich reef has been a potential flashpoint since Beijing seized it from Manila in 2012.

It is about 240 kilometres west of the Philippines' main island of Luzon and nearly 900 kilometres from Hainan, the nearest major Chinese land mass.

Atin Ito convoy organiser Edicio Dela Torre said Wednesday that the group's "civilian supply mission is not just about delivering supplies, it's about reaffirming our presence and rights in our own waters".

"The world is watching, and the narrative of rightful ownership and peaceful assertion is clearly on our side," he added.

In claiming almost the entire South China Sea, China has brushed off rival claims by the Philippines and other countries, and ignored the international ruling that its assertion has no legal basis.

To press its claims, Beijing deploys coast guard and other boats to patrol the waterway and has turned several reefs into artificial islands that it has militarised.

Maritime confrontations between China and the Philippines in the disputed waterway have raised fears of a wider conflict that could involve the United States and other allies.


The Peninsula

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