HANOI (AFP) - Vietnam said on Tuesday that a Chinese ship rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat in the South China Sea, while China claimed the Vietnamese vessel capsized after harassing and colliding with the Chinese boat, as tensions between the Asian neighbours simmered over the disputed waters.
Tthe official Vietnam News Agency reported that the fishing vessel's crew, who were rescued by other Vietnamese ships after the Monday afternoon incident, said their boat was encircled by 40 Chinese vessels before being rammed,
"I confirm that the fishing vessel was rammed," an official with the Vietnam Regional Maritime Search and Rescue Coordination Centre in the central city of Danang told AFP.
The sinking occurred about 12 nautical miles southwest of a Chinese rig, the official added, requesting anonymity. "The 10 fishermen on board are on land now. They are safe. The ship sank."
China's Xinhua news agency, however, said the Vietnamese fishing vessel "jostled a fishing boat from Dongfang City in southern China's Hainan Province and overturned in the waters near China's Xisha Islands (Paracel islands)".
"Vietnam has sent a number of ships to obstruct the drilling of Chinese companies in the waters where the collision took place. The Chinese side has taken measures to stop Vietnamese interference and lodged serious representations to the Vietnamese side, asking them to immediately stop the disruptive activities", Xinhua reported, quoting a source.
It was the first ship reported sunk since the dispute flared in early May. The standoff has seen repeated skirmishes between dozens of Chinese and Vietnamese vessels, including many civilian and fishing boats. The confrontations have included reported rammings and the use of water cannon.
Relations between Vietnam and China have plummeted over the oil rig's presence, which has exacerbated an increasingly heated dispute over territorial claims in the area.
The oil rig is positioned in the vicinity of the contested Paracel Islands.
Tensions over the oil rig sparked violent anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam. Beijing says four Chinese citizens died in the unrest, while Vietnam says three Chinese died.
Hundreds of people have been detained over the riots, and two men on Sunday became the first sentenced to jail, receiving terms of one and three years.
Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung said last week that China's placement of the rig in the contested area had "seriously threatened peace". He said during a meeting in Manila with President Benigno Aquino of the Philippines - which also is facing off with China in disputed waters - that the two leaders agreed Beijing should be condemned by the international community for its behaviour in the South China Sea.
China claims nearly all of the sea, even waters approaching the coasts of its neighbours and has become increasingly assertive in staking those claims.
Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia, as well as Taiwan, have competing claims to parts of the body of water.
In Japan, government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said if the report was true, it was an "extremely dangerous act".
"It's important that relevant countries abstain from unilateral actions that raise tensions and that the countries act cool-headedly, observing international laws," said Mr Suga, the chief cabinet secretary.
Japan is engaged in a thorny maritime territorial dispute of its own with Beijing in the East China Sea.