Palace unsure of Filipino fishers' account on Recto Bank incident

Alexis Romero - Philstar.com
Palace unsure of Filipino fishers' account on Recto Bank incident
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.

MANILA, Philippines — Some information has cast doubt on the accounts of Filipino fishermen involved in the incident near Recto Bank in the West Philippine Sea, Malacañang said Monday. 

The Palace stressed the need for a formal inquiry to ferret out the truth about the sinking of the Filipino fishing boat. 

Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said while the Filipino crew of F/B Gem-Vir 1 have given their version of the incident, there are facts and circumstances that are still unknown.   

"What I'm saying now is there are circumstances that give doubt to the version, so we need to investigate it. A formal inquiry is needed here," Panelo said in a press briefing. 

Panelo said only one member of the crew, the cook, was awake before and during the incident. He said that based on Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol's interview with local fishermen, the area where the reported collision took place was "not well-lighted." 

It is generally dark at sea.

"He (Piñol) asked them, 'What do you think? Was it intentional?' The response was like this: 'I think they did not see us,'" the presidential spokesman said.

'They were in the middle of the sea' 

Panelo said it also appears that the Filipino fishing boat was not anchored near the shore as reported earlier. The vessel, it seemed, was rammed because it was in the middle of the sea, Panelo added. 

The Department of National Defense, which was the first to make one on the incident, did not say that the Filipino fishermen were anchored near shore, only that they were at anchor when the Chinese ship hit their fishing boat.

"It appears that they are in the middle of the sea...There was a portion of the sea that was shallow and they placed their anchor there," he said. 

Panelo said a presentation during the joint meeting of the defense and economic clusters of the cabinet also showed that there were other boats in the area aside from the Filipino fishing boat and the Chinese vessel.

"There were figures there aside from the two - the (Chinese) ship and the boat that was rammed. We asked what those figures represent. It turned out, they were boats," he added. 

A Chinese Embassy statement previously claimed there were seven to eight Filipino vessels in the area where the fishing boat took place. The embassy also denied abandoning the 22 Filipino fishermen, saying the captain of the Chinese vessel tried to help them but was afraid of being besieged by other Filipino boats. 

Panelo said based on the presentation of the Defense department, there were about 19 Filipino boats in the area. He also claimed that only one Filipino crew member was awake when the incident happened. 

'Let's wait for the investigation'

"But given that, as the president said, we still do not know the facts. Let's wait because they promised to investigate and they are doing it...We are waiting for their (official) findings. We are also investigating," the presidential spokesman said. 

Panelo, however, clarified that the Duterte administration is not yet taking China's word on the Recto Bank incident. 

"It’s not a question of belief. What we are saying: Both sides should stop speculating. That's what the president is saying. That's why he called on everyone to keep quiet...Let's not jump to conclusions," the presidential spokesman said.  

Panelo proposed a joint investigation on the sinking of the Filipino ship. Secretary to the Cabinet Karlo Nograles confirmed in a separate interview that conducting a joint probe was one of the options floated during the joint meeting of the economic and defense clusters last Monday. 

"We filed a diplomatic protest and we will wait for the reply from China then we will work from there...After China makes the reply, when it does make a reply, then we will proceed with whatever options are open to us," Nograles said. 

Philippines can sue Chinese crew

Panelo said the Philippines can sue the Chinese crew if investigations show that they are guilty of abandoning the Filipino fishermen. 

"Chinese government will have to do something about it. Under the UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea), I was reading the provision, the flag carrier, should initiate the investigation," Panelo said. 

"Number Two, we can sue them. We can sue them because that's our territory. It's within Mindoro, so we can sue the offending vessel," he added. 

If the Philippines and China come up with conflicting findings, an arbitral body or office can be tapped to look into the incident, Panelo said. 

"If we don't agree on the findings, there has to be an independent body. We won't be part of it. They won't be part of it...Of course, we are hopeful that we will know what happened. Whoever is at fault should admit liability and give compensation," the presidential spokesman added. 

China refused to participate in arbitration that the Philippines initiated in 2013, over its sweeping nine-dash-line claim over most of the South China Sea. It has also refused to recognize the 2016 tribunal ruling that that there was no basis for the nine-dash-line claim.




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