'Chinese coast guard tried to intervene during trawler's seizure'

A fishing boat heading towards the east coast of Natuna Besar.
A fishing boat heading towards the east coast of Natuna Besar.PHOTO: REUTERS

Warning shots were fired at a Chinese vessel with a Chinese crew of eight over suspicions of illegal fishing in the Natuna Sea, Indonesian navy officials have disclosed.

A Chinese coast guard vessel had tried to intervene when the trawler, Gui Bei Yu 27088, and crew were captured, the navy's Western Fleet Command spokesman, Major Budi Amin, told The Straits Times.

"The Chinese coast guard approached our navy and asked, 'Why are you doing this to our boat?'

"We said it was violating our laws and we're doing this to uphold Indonesia's sovereignty. They then left," he said yesterday.

The revelations came a day after the Indonesian navy announced the detention over alleged poaching in the country's exclusive economic zone (EEZ), a 200 nautical mile stretch of waters from its coast over which it has special rights to exploit and use marine resources.

Investigators will "need a few days" to inspect the vessel and question the crew, currently being held at a naval base on Natuna's capital city of Ranai, Maj Budi said. "We will hand them over to the Attorney-General's Office and related agencies if they are found to have breached our laws. They will be freed if they are not guilty."

Commodore S. Irawan, navy commander in Tanjung Pinang, capital of Riau province, said on Sunday that the Chinese coast guard had provided "protection" to the fishing vessel. "Small-calibre rounds were fired as warning shots to the left and right of the vessel, but were ignored by the crew. They didn't care and continued to flee as a big Chinese coast guard vessel was giving them protection," he said. "Our frigate, which was just as big (as the Chinese coast guard's boat), continued to give chase and fire shots. It eventually stopped and we captured it."

On April 22, the Indonesian navy had detained another Chinese trawler, Hua Li 8, in Belawan, North Sumatra province. The boat was wanted by Interpol in Argentina for poaching illegally in its waters.

Earlier, on March 19, the Indonesian maritime authorities nabbed eight Chinese fishermen from a vessel off Natuna Islands that was said to be poaching in its EEZ off West Kalimantan. But a Chinese coast guard vessel intercepted the Indonesian operation and managed to free the vessel, sparking a diplomatic spat between the two countries.

Besides overlapping territorial claims, disputes over contested fishing grounds have also heightened tensions in the South China Sea.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 31, 2016, with the headline ''Chinese coast guard tried to intervene during trawler's seizure''. Print Edition | Subscribe