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Philippines ignores China demand to free fishermen

Philippine National Police Maritime Group director, Chief Superintendent Noel Lazarus Vargas addresses the media during a news conference on the police' arrest of Chinese fishermen at one of the disputed Shoals, the Half Moon Shoal, off the South China Sea Thursday, May 8, 2014 at the police headquarters at Camp Crame northeast of Manila, Philippines. AP/Bullit Marquez

MANILA, Philippines  — The Philippine National Police chief says the government will investigate 11 Chinese fishermen to see if they illegally entered the country or committed other crimes, ignoring China's demand for them to be immediately released.

China pressed the Philippines to release the fishermen and their boat, warning Manila Thursday not to take any more "provocative actions so as to avoid further damage to the bilateral relations."

Asked if the Philippines will heed China's demand, national police chief Alan Purisima says the fishermen will be investigated to determine if they illegally entered the country and committed other crimes such as poaching.

Philippine police took the fishermen and their boat into custody Tuesday in a disputed South China Sea shoal, adding the vessel was loaded with more than 350 endangered green sea turtle.

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Related story: PNP now meeting with Chinese boat captain

It is the latest territorial spat between the two Asian nations, which have had increasingly tense disputes over two shoals and other areas of the South China Sea.

China earlier said via state media that Chinese officials lost contact with 11 fishermen after they were intercepted by armed men near Half Moon Shoal not far from the Philippines.

The shoal, called Hasa Hasa in the Philippines, is claimed by China as part of the Nansha island chain, known internationally as the Spratly Islands. The Spratlys are a major cluster of potentially oil- and gas-rich islands and reefs long disputed by China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei.

China lays claim to virtually the entire South China Sea and is locked in an increasingly heated dispute with the Philippines, Vietnam and others over rights to energy resources, fishing grounds and island outposts.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. had seen reports that Philippine police have seized Chinese and Philippine fishing boats carrying illegally harvested sea turtles about 60 miles (96 kilometers) off the coast of the Philippines, and detained their crews. She urged both sides to work together diplomatically, and voiced U.S. concern that the vessels appeared to have been engaged in direct harvest of endangered species.

Vargas said the Chinese boat will be taken to the western Philippine province of Palawan, about 110 kilometers (70 miles) from Half Moon Shoal, and the fishermen will face charges of violating Philippine laws prohibiting catches of endangered green sea turtles.

Another boat with Philippine fishermen was also caught in the area with 70 turtles aboard, and those fishermen will face the same charges, Vargas said.

China's official Xinhua News Agency said the Chinese fishermen's vessel was intercepted on Tuesday by armed men who fired warning shots in the air. An official from the Fishing Port Monitoring Center at Tanmen in China's Hainan province confirmed the report. He said he had no other details and declined to give his name, as is common among Chinese bureaucrats.

A Chinese frigate became stuck in the shallows of Half Moon Shoal while on a security patrol in 2012, prompting China to send rescue vessels. - Jim Gomez, Christopher Bodeen

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