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Filipino fishers returning to Scarborough Shoal—AFP

MANILA, Philippines—Filipino fishers have returned to the disputed waters of the Panatag Shoal (also known as Scarborough Shoal), with six of their boats now sharing the fishing grounds with six Chinese vessels, under the careful watch of Philippine and Chinese maritime ships there who remain locked in a standoff.

On the 20th day of the impasse between China and the Philippines over the shoal west of Zambales province, the leader of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Northern Luzon command said six Filipino fishing boats were back in the area, anchored in the lagoon.

It was the first time the Philippine military reported the presence of Filipino fishers in the area since the tensions began and following reports that they had been scared off by the Chinese.

But the AFP North Luzon commander, Lieutenant General Anthony Alcantara, played down the return of the Filipino fishers, saying they had the right to fish in the Panatag waters from the beginning.

“We never banned our fisher folks from fishing there. These are our natural fishing grounds. We’ve been fishing there for a long time,” Alcantara said in an interview over dzBB radio.

He also stressed that other Filipino fishers should not hesitate to pursue their livelihood in the contested waters. “Our Coast Guard is ready to help and protect the interests of our fishermen in that area,” he said.

Alcantara described the situation at Panatag, internationally known as Scarborough Shoal, as “very stable” at present.

“No unusual incident has been reported to us,” he said, adding that the Philippine Coast Guard boat, the BRP Pampanga, or the SARV-003, and the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources vessel, the MCS3001, were still in the waters.

“Two Chinese surveillance ships, one is number 71, the other is undetermined, are also still there. One of them is located three nautical miles, south of the entrance of the shoal, while the other is 12 nautical miles east of (SARV) 003,” he said.

China’s biggest and most advanced maritime surveillance ship deployed in the area, the FLEC 310, also called Yuzheng 310, has not been sighted.

It was the FLEC 310 that reportedly speedily brushed past the Filipino ships on Saturday morning in what Philippine officials described as an act of harassment.

“It is assumed (the FLEC 310) is somewhere else beyond our Coast Guard’s visual contact. 

That’s the situation. We are continually monitoring the situation,” Alcantara said.

Asked to comment on the Saturday incident, Alcantara refused, saying he never received a report from the Coast Guard on the subject.

“What we can say at Nolcom, our Armed Forces is prepared to help our Coast Guard assert our claims on Scarborough Shoal. We believe it is ours and we have to assert our sovereignty in this place,” he said.

“What’s clear is it’s part of our Exclusive Economic Zone, according to the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas. That’s very clear,” he said.

Alcantara said all the units of the AFP, the Coast Guard, the Maritime Group of the Philippine National Police, and other concerned agencies each had their roles to protect Philippine interests in the area.

“We are helping each other out, all of us. We are on the same boat,” he said.

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  | Philippine Daily Inquirer | April 29, 2012 | Article Link

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