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After U.S. warship, suspected Chinese fishing vessel hits Philippine reef

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MANILA » A suspected Chinese fishing vessel with 12 crewmen has run aground in a protected coral reef in the southwestern Philippines, where a U.S. Navy minesweeper got stuck and had to be dismantled recently, officials said Tuesday (Monday in Hawaii).

The steel-hulled vessel strayed into the Tubbataha National Marine Park in the Sulu Sea and struck an atoll, where it was stranded. It was unclear why the vessel strayed into the no-sail area, regional coast guard commander Commodore Enrico Efren Evangelista said.

It is not the same area where the Philippines and China were in a standoff last year over competing sea claims. Tubbataha lies east off southwestern Palawan province and is far from South China Sea islands and offshore areas long contested by China, the Philippines and four other governments.

The 12 crewmen were taken into custody but investigators have not been able to communicate with them because they do speak Chinese and no English. They may face charges of illegal entry and poaching, and have already violated a regulation banning commercial ships from venturing into a three-mile no-sail area around Tubbataha, park superintendent Angelique Songco said.

No fish were found in the vessel but it was equipped with fishing nets, she said.

Authorities will wait for a high tide this morning to see if they can refloat the ship.

Tubbataha is a 239,700-acre marine sanctuary and popular diving destination 400 miles southwest of Manila. It has been designated a World Heritage site by UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural arm, for its rich bio-diversity.

“It’s clear in the charts that the Tubbataha sanctuary is off-limits to navigation but there seems to be a line of ships just waiting to violate that regulation,” Songco said.

The USS Guardian ran aground in another Tubbataha atoll on Jan. 17 and was removed March 30 after being dismantled and lifted piece by piece by a crane to prevent more damage to the coral reefs.

The U.S. Pacific Fleet said last week it has relieved the commanding officer, the executive officer and navigator, the assistant navigator and the officer of the deck of the Guardian after initial findings indicated all had failed to adhere to standard navigation procedures at the time of the minesweeper’s grounding.

Washington has been asked to pay $1.5 million for the 2,800 square yards of coral reef damaged by the Guardian in Tubbataha, Songco said, adding the U.S. Embassy was notified of the fine Monday.

U.S. Embassy officials have expressed regret and promised to compensate for the damage.

At least eight other vessels have run aground in Tubbataha in past years, including a Greenpeace ship which accidentally got stuck in the corals in 2005 while studying the impact of global warming on coral reefs. Greenpeace officials expressed regrets and paid a fine, Songco said.

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