SEOUL • South Korea's Coast Guard said yesterday it was investigating the death of three Chinese fishermen in a fire on their vessel after it was boarded by a coast guard patrol for fishing in South Korean waters.
Disputes over illegal fishing have dogged relations between South Korean and China for years, and there have been numerous incidents of violent clashes between the coast guard and Chinese crew members.
A coast guard spokesman in the south-western port of Mokpo said the Chinese boat had been spotted fishing on Thursday in the waters of South Korea's exclusive economic zone, and was boarded after ignoring commands to stop.
Coast guard personnel then threw stun grenades into the wheelhouse where the crew had barricaded themselves and were continuing to pilot the boat.
The wheelhouse structure caught fire and three of the Chinese crew died in the ensuing blaze - most likely due to smoke inhalation.
"The remaining 13 crew members including the skipper are in custody and being questioned. A forensic team is now ready to board the ship for inspection," the spokesman said. An autopsy had been ordered on the three dead fishermen to confirm the precise cause of death, he added.
China's Foreign Ministry said yesterday it had lodged a protest with Seoul about the incident. Its spokesman Geng Shuang told a daily news briefing that Beijing was also urging South Korea to hold a "comprehensive and objective" investigation into the incident, along with China.
The captain of the Chinese fishing boat, a 41-year-old man surnamed Yang, said yesterday: "We were scared of the coast guard, so we ran into the steering house and locked the door."
"I thought that the coast guard may decide through their inspection of the boat that we do not meet a lot of their regulations and may stop us from fishing here," the captain added.
He denied illegal fishing by presenting a permit issued by the South Korean government, but it was for another Chinese vessel, the Korea Joongang Daily reported yesterday.
Seoul has been asking Beijing to take a tougher stand on Chinese vessels that have been entering South Korean waters in increasing numbers to meet growing demand at home for fresh seafood.
Small wooden Chinese ships were once tolerated in an area where the top priority has always been guarding against potential incursions from North Korea.
But in recent years, the small boats have given way to larger steel trawlers that engage in bottom trawling - dragging a large, weighted net across the sea floor that sweeps up everything in its path.
Around 2,200 Chinese vessels have been stopped and fined by South Korea for illegal fishing in the past four years, and the number of arrested fishermen jumped from two in 2010 to 66 in 2013.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS