Standoff near Philippines over; Chinese boats keep catch

MANILA Sat Apr 14, 2012 3:43am EDT

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MANILA (Reuters) - Chinese fishing boats left a disputed area of the South China Sea with their catches on Saturday, ending a six-day standoff but dealing a blow to Philippine efforts to assert sovereignty over the area and protect marine resources.

The Philippines had wanted the Chinese fishermen to hand over their hauls of giant clams, corals and live sharks harvested near the disputed Scarborough Shoal, in return for safe passage out of the area.

China sent surveillance ships to protect its fishermen while the Philippines dispatched its biggest warship. Negotiations dragged on and all eight boats left without giving anything up.

"The Chinese fishing vessels had left the lagoon, a development which we had been working towards except for our not being able to confiscate their illegal harvest ... which was regrettable," Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Del Rosario said in a statement.

China has disputes with several countries in the region including the Philippines over areas of the South China Sea, which is believed to be rich in oil and gas and is crossed by important shipping lanes.

There is concern among some neighbors about what they see as China's growing assertiveness in staking its claims over the sea and various islands, reefs and shoals.

The Philippines and China traded diplomatic protests over the latest confrontation with the Philippines complaining of intrusion and illegal fishing and China saying its fishermen were harassed.

A Philippine military commander said a Philippine coastguard vessel and one Chinese ship remained in the area.

(Reporting by Rosemarie Francisco; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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