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Philippines protests Chinese warships near Spratleys

By Jim Gomez

Associated Press

LAST UPDATED: 06:49 a.m. HST, May 21, 2013

CAVITE, Philippines >> The Philippines has protested the presence of a Chinese warship, two surveillance vessels and fishing boats off a shoal occupied by its military in the disputed Spratly Islands, in the latest territorial squabble between the Asian countries, officials said today.

President Benigno Aquino III warned, meanwhile, that the Philippines is ready to fight back against any threat and announced plans to buy more warships and aircraft for its ill-equipped military, including anti-submarine attack helicopters.

"Our message to the whole world is clear: what belongs to the Philippines belongs to the Philippines," Aquino said in a speech at a naval base in Cavite province south of Manila. "We can fight back and defend ourselves every time somebody will threaten us right in our own home ground."

Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez said the Philippines denounced the "provocative and illegal presence" of Beijing's ships off Ayungin Shoal in the South China Sea, adding the area is "an integral part of our national territory."

"The Philippines calls on China to respect sovereign rights and jurisdiction," he said.

Chinese diplomats did not immediately react to the protest, which Hernandez said was filed two weeks ago at the Chinese Embassy in Manila.

The shoal, 122 miles from the southwestern Philippine province of Palawan, is guarded by a Filipino marine unit based in a rusty warship that ran aground on a coral outcrop several years ago. The shoal lies near Mischief Reef, which the Philippines has claimed but was occupied by China in 1995, sparking intense protests from Manila.

By allowing fishermen in several boats to fish off the shoal, China has violated the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which grants coastal states exclusive right to exploit marine resources in waters within 200 nautical miles of their coast, Hernandez said.

It's the latest territorial rift between the Asian countries, which also are locked in other long-simmering disputes in the South China Sea. Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also claim parts of the Spratlys, a chain of islands, islets and reefs.

Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said another protest might be lodged if authorities confirm that two ships which chased a Philippine official's ferry boat last week near Ayungin Shoal were Chinese government vessels.

Eugenio Bito-onon, mayor of a chain of Philippine-occupied islands in the Spratlys, said he was traveling with 178 crewmen and companions on a boat to Palawan at night last week when two unidentified ships chased them away from Ayungin. The ships focused spotlights on Bito-onon's boat, preventing him and his companions from identifying the vessels, he said.

He said a suspected Chinese warship also cut through his four-boat convoy twice last October while he and his staff were traveling to a Philippine-occupied island in the Spratlys. He said he took pictures and video of the gray ship, its hull marked with the number 995, and reported the incident to the military.

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