UPDATE 3-Tensions surge in S. China Sea as Philippines seizes Chinese boat

Wed May 7, 2014 2:40am EDT

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MANILA/BEIJING May 7 (Reuters) - Philippines police seized a Chinese fishing boat in the disputed South China Sea on Wednesday, an official told Reuters, the latest flare-up of tensions in the oil and gas-rich waters that are claimed wholly or in part by six Asian nations.

Chief Superintendent Niel Vargas of the Philippine National Police Maritime Group said a maritime police patrol apprehended a Chinese fishing boat around 7 a.m. on Tuesday off Half Moon Shoal.

The boat has 11 crew and police found about 500 turtles in the vessel, some of which were already dead, he said, adding that a Philippine boat with crew was also seized, and found to have 40 turtles on board. Several species of sea turtles are protected under Philippine law.

Maritime police are now towing the boats to Puerto Princesa town on the island of Palawan where appropriate charges will be filed against them, Vargas said.

The incident is bound to raise the ire of Beijing, which claims almost the entire South China Sea, rejecting rival claims from Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei.

On Tuesday, China warned Vietnam not to disturb activities of Chinese companies operating near disputed islands in another part of the South China Sea, after Hanoi condemned as illegal the movement of a giant Chinese oil rig into what it says is its territorial waters.

There are frequent tensions in the South China Sea between China and the other claimant nations, particularly Vietnam and the Philippines, both of which say Beijing has harassed their ships in the waters there.

The incidents come days after U.S. President Barack Obama visited Asia to underline his commitment to allies there, including Japan and the Philippines, both locked in territorial disputes with China.

Obama, promoting a strategic "pivot" toward the Asia-Pacific region, also visited South Korea and Malaysia, but not China.

Half Moon Shoal is within the Philippines' 200-mile exclusive economic zone and near to Second Thomas Shoal, where a small Philippines garrison is based much to China's displeasure.

A second Philippine source, a senior naval officer, said there were two Chinese boats but the other one escaped.

China's official Xinhua news agency said contact had been lost with 11 fishermen after they were intercepted by "armed men" in waters not far from the Philippines.

They were on board the fishing boat Qiongqionghai 09063, which was intercepted by an unidentified armed vessel at about 10 a.m. (0200 GMT) in waters off Half Moon Shoal in the Spratly Islands, Xinhua said, citing a fishing association in Qionghai on China's southern island province of Hainan.

The shoal is some 100 km (60 miles) from the Philippines' Palawan island.

"Several armed men forced themselves onto the boat and fired four or five shots in the air. They then took control of the boat," Xinhua said.

A second fishing boat escaped, but then encountered another armed boat, although it was able to get away, the report added.

The Qionghai government has sent other trawlers operating close by to help look for the fishermen, but has yet to find them, Xinhua said.

China's foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment. (Reporting by Manuel Mogato and Ben Blanchard; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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