Philippine fishing boat was rammed – Navy chief

Jaime Laude - The Philippine Star
Philippine fishing boat was rammed � Navy chief
Navy photo shows the first batch of Filipino fishermen rescued in the waters off Recto Bank after their fishing boat was hit by a Chinese vessel. Right shows the damaged stern of the F/B Gemvir1.

 ‘No ordinary accident’

MANILA, Philippines — What made a Chinese vessel come into contact with a Filipino fishing boat and cause it to sink at midnight on Sunday in Recto Bank was no accident but a deliberate maneuver to ram the smaller craft, Philippine Navy chief Vice Admiral Robert Empedrad said yesterday.

“The Filipino vessel was anchored. So when based on the International Rules of the Road, it had the privilege because it could not evade… The ship was rammed. This is not a normal incident. The boat was anchored,” Empedrad said in an interview during a Naval symposium at the Manila Hotel.

Empedrad issued the statement in response to Beijing’s claim that what happened to F/B Gemvir 1 was just an ordinary maritime accident. Even some Philippine officials had maintained the sinking of the fishing boat in Philippine waters was not intentional, and may not have been necessarily caused by a Chinese vessel.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang on Thursday called the incident “an ordinary maritime traffic accident,” and said China was still investigating.

“If the relevant reports are true, regardless of the country from which the perpetrator came from, their behavior should be condemned,” the Chinese official said.

Empedrad said crewmembers of oceangoing vessels as well as commanding officers of warships should be knowledgeable of the International Rules of the (maritime) Road. Based on international rules, stationary vessels should absolutely be avoided.

Gemvir 1 was stationary and anchored and had signal lightings when rammed by the bigger Chinese ship, the type and make of which remain unknown.

The Navy chief also said Gemvir 1 crewmembers had made it clear it was a Chinese vessel that rammed their boat and not a Vietnamese vessel as some officials had insinuated.

It was the Chinese’s disregard for the safety and wellbeing of the 22 Filipino fishermen that made the incident doubly reprehensible, Empedrad said.

After their boat was hit, some of the crew said in a television interview they retrieved their small utility boats and paddled their way toward the Chinese vessel that briefly stopped after the incident.

“They came very close to the Chinese vessel to seek help but were ignored. Inilawan lang sila saka umalis yong erring ship (They shone a light on them and the erring ship left),” military sources said.

Fortunately for the fishermen, after floundering in the water for more than six hours, they were able to spot a Vietnamese fishing boat. From the Vietnamese boat, the fishermen radioed their sister ship, A/G Thanksgiving, to inform its crew about what happened and seek help.

Gemvir 1 skipper Junel Insigne told reporters they had thought the Chinese would pluck them out of the water after sinking their boat, but the Chinese left.

He said they were anchored and resting, as it was already midnight. He stressed their boat was well lighted.

“Umikot muna sila, binalikan kami, sinindi yung maraming ilaw, nung nakita kaming lubog na, pinatay yung ilaw ulit bago umatras, bago tumakbo palayo (They circled us, went back, switched on their lights. When they saw us sinking, they switched off their lights and hurriedly left),” he said, adding he could tell they were Chinese because of the type of ship lights.

“Kung wala dun yung Vietnam, baka mamatay na kaming lahat (If the Vietnamese weren’t there, we would have died),” Insigne said.

The area in Recto (Reed) Bank where the incident took place is considered a traditional fishing ground also frequented by fishermen from other countries like Vietnam, China, and Taiwan.

Mistaken identity?

A senior security official, meanwhile, said they are also looking into the possibility that the Chinese may have mistaken Gemvir 1 for a Vietnamese fishing boat.

The official said the Chinese – based on their own rule of engagement (ROE) – were more hostile to Vietnamese and that they have never applied such level of hostility to Filipinos.

“We don’t know for now if China Coast Guard is already refocusing their ROE against Philippine vessels,” he said.

While admitting that Chinese vessels have also been harassing Filipino fishing boats, he said their aggressive actions are limited to hosing Filipino fishing boats and boarding them to confiscate the fishermen’s catch.

Despite what happened, the security official stressed that the military and other stakeholders have sought guidance from political leadership in dealing with similar situations.

“We are always prepared to take precautionary but peaceful measures, but we couldn’t do it without an order from the top political leadership,” the security official said.

 Also at the Navy forum, Foreign Affairs Undersecretary for maritime and ocean affairs Generoso D.G. Calonge said the filing of diplomatic protest against China should make it clear the Philippines was deeply hurt by the incident.

“It’s a diplomatic protest and I haven’t seen it, so I cannot speak authoritatively about it. But I know there will be a protest if it has not been done yet,” Calonge said in an interview.

The 22 rescued fishermen were turned over yesterday afternoon to their families in Mindoro. They arrived on board Philippine Navy patrol ship BRP Ramon Alcaraz.

“The Armed Forces of the Philippines may assist the relevant government agency that may conduct a formal inquiry on the incident. But on top of it, we will, as we did upon learning of the incident, come to the aid and succor of fellow Filipinos in need,” Brig. Gen. Edgard Arevalo, military spokesman, said.

Meanwhile, Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) investigators are in Mindoro Occidental to take statements from the rescued fishermen.

“Our investigators are already waiting for them there in Mindoro to take their statements to officially establish what really happened,” Capt. Armand Balilo, PCG spokesman said.

“This is a special case, it is a hot issue because it involves national concern. We would be exhaustive in our investigation,” he added.

He said that Capt. Raul Belisario, who is in charge of the Coast Guard’s Maritime Safety Services Command, would lead PCG’s team of investigators. – With Evelyn Macairan

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