Chinese ships are no longer seen at the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, allowing Filipinos to fish around the atoll's waters without fear of being chased away for the first time since 2012, in what appears to be a major victory for President Rodrigo Duterte.
"Since three days ago, there are no longer Chinese ships, coast guard or navy in the Scarborough area," Defence Minister Delfin Lorenzana told reporters yesterday.
He added: "If the Chinese ships have left, then it means our fishermen can resume fishing in the area… This will return to them their traditional source of livelihood."
Earlier in the day, Mr Duterte's spokesman Ernesto Abella said at a news briefing that "nothing has been official regarding the matter".
"But all we know is based on reports, the fishermen... can now go into those waters," he said.
Asked if Chinese ships had left the area, he replied: "Apparently, there have been some physical observations in the area. All I can say is at this stage, it has been observed that there are no longer any Chinese Coast Guard (ships) in the area."
The Philippine Daily Inquirer reported yesterday that eight groups of fishermen from Zambales province, 200km north of the capital Manila, reached Scarborough on Wednesday and had been able to stay and fish there without interference from the Chinese.
"We received a radio message that some of our fellow fishermen were able to approach the shoal. The Chinese Coast Guard did not intercept their boats," Mr Aniceto Achina, 40, a boat captain, told the Inquirer. He said he would be heading to the shoal himself with 11 of his men.
Fishermen from neighbouring Bataan and Pangasinan provinces were also reportedly readying to sail for Scarborough.
The Inquirer quoted a fisherman, Mr Rodel David, 30, as saying a Chinese patrol ship approached some of the boats, but did not prevent them from entering the shoal.
The apparent lifting of the four-year Chinese blockade of the shoal marks a victory for Mr Duterte, one that has eluded his predecessor, Mr Benigno Aquino, who won a case against Beijing but was unable to get any real concessions or territories.
On Sunday, Mr Duterte said he was expecting China to soon allow Filipinos to fish around Scarborough, located 220km west of Zambales. He said he raised the matter with China's President Xi Jinping during his visit to Beijing last week.
Lawmaker Harry Roque, who went to China with Mr Duterte, said: "There is already an agreement that we can fish. What has kept us from signing anything in writing is apparently the problem with words to be used." He said the Chinese wanted a document to indicate it was "allowing" Filipinos to sail to Scarborough.
But the Philippine delegation pointed out such wording was inconsistent with a ruling handed down by an international tribunal that declared Scarborough as a "traditional fishing ground" open to all nations.