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Palace plays down Sino boat on gas field spying

The Palace on Thursday played down speculation that the fishing vessel grounded in the Tubbataha Reef was part of espionage operations carried out by the Chinese government, despite military claims that China had been sending such boats to Philippine waters to spy on the development of the country’s gas fields. Tubbataha Reef, a protected marine sanctuary, is well outside China’s so-called nine-dash territorial line and well within Philippine territory. “At this point, we are treating it the way it looks -- it is a Chinese fishing vessel, not government-owned, and that they ran aground by accident,” said Presidential Communications Development Secretary Ramon Carandang. “At this point, we have no reason to believe otherwise.” President Benigno Aquino III earlier said the owners of the Chinese fishing vessel and its crew will be charged for illegally entering Philippine territory and causing damage to the Tubbataha Reef. Under the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park Act of 2009, there is an automatic presumption that anyone entering the zone illegally is a poacher. The President could not hide his dismay that the Tubbataha Reef, which has yet to recover from the damage done by the grounding of a US warship, the USS Guardian, was once again damaged by a foreign vessel. The President said the government is thinking of adding more lighted buoys to expand Tubbataha’s buffer zone. “We will expand the areas that will be closed to transit to forestall any possibility of another grounding incident,” he said. The grounding of the Chinese fishing vessel happened just as the wreckage of the USS Guardian had been removed from the reef. Under the existing law covering Tubbataha, a fine of about $600 or P24,000 per square meter of damaged reef is mandatory. The Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park protects almost 100,000 hectares of marine habitats containing three atolls and a large area of deep sea. Home to whales, dolphins, sharks, turtles and Napoleon wrasse, the park supports more than 350 species of coral and almost 500 species of fish. For this, it has been declared a World Heritage Site by the Unesco. The reserve also protects one of the few remaining colonies of breeding seabirds in the region, according to Unesco. The Coast Guard said it would start refloating and removing the 65-meter-long Chinese fishing boat, the Min Long Yu, which ran aground in Tubbataha Reef shortly before midnight Monday. Commodore Enrico Efren Evangelista, head of the Coast Guard Palawan district office, said the agency already deployed its search and rescue ships, the BRP Corregidor and BRP Romblon to remove the grounded vessel. “It (BRP Corregidor) is expected to arrive on April 13. The next day, we can start lightening the vessel,” he said. “One option is to refloat the fishing boat.” The BRP Romblon was the first Coast Guard vessel to arrive in Palawan after Min Long Yu ran aground in the North Islet of Tubbataha Reef Monday night. The Coast Guard ships will first siphon the half of the 80,000 liters of fuel from the wooden hull of the fishing boat before removing water and heavy cargo to lighten the boat. “The ultimate goal is to remove the vessel safely from the reef without causing damage to the reef,” Evangelista said, estimating that the entire operation would take more than two weeks. Angelique Songco, superintendent of the Tubbataha Management Office, said she hoped the courts would find the 12 Chinese poachers guilty and send them to jail for six to 12 years. In the past, however, Chinese poachers were let off with a pardon from the national government, she said. “There is no lack of evidence here,” Songco said, adding that the grounded fishing vessel is enough evidence that the Chinese poachers violated Philippine maritime laws as well as a Unesco provision. The poachers were currently detained at the provincial jail in Puerto Princesa City, Palawan. They could be slapped fines of P300,000 each for “destroying and disturbing resources” if found guilty on charges for violating the Tubbataha Act. The secretary general of the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan, Renato Reyes Jr., accused the Aquino government of a double standard against territorial violators, noting that the crew of the USS Guardian were not charged or treated the same way. “Why are the Americans so special that they were neither detained nor investigated in the Philippines? Reyes said in a statement. The US Navy immediately rescued and whisked its personnel to Sasebo, Japan after the grounding to avoid arrest, legal responsibility and a possible jail term in the country, Reyes added. Also on Thursday, Senator Francis Escudero vowed to allocate more funds for the protection and preservation of environmental treasures such as the Tubbataha Reef. With Joel E. Zurbano and Macon Ramos-Araneta
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