MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines has ordered an inquiry into reports that "foreign vessels" near China's manmade islands harassed Filipino fishermen in the disputed South China Sea, the military chief said on Thursday.
In an interview with reporters, General Eduardo Ano said the armed forces had received sketchy reports of a group of Filipinos being driven away from Union Bank in the Spratlys, near Gaven Reef, on which China has built an island.
A Philippines television channel had earlier reported the fishermen had been fired upon, but the military, in a statement, described the events as "alleged harassment".
China claims sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea, through which about $5 trillion worth of goods pass annually. Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims, and occupy some islets and reefs in the Spratly archipelago.
Philippine authorities are trying to locate the fishermen, believed to have returned to land, who have been encouraged to report to police or coastguard officials.
China's foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether it was aware of the incident or if the foreign ships in question were Chinese.
Reports of altercations between the Philippines and China have been rare since President Rodrigo Duterte took office last year and sought to patch up differences between the two countries and encourage business ties. He frequently heaps praise on China President Xi Jinping.
Duterte has refrained from criticizing China's activities in the South China Sea and tends to blame the United States for letting the problem escalate, by failing to stop Beijing from building and arming its artificial islands.
In what appeared to be an olive branch to the Philippines, China's coastguard in October started allowing Filipino fishermen to return and fish at the strategic Scarborough Shoal, which Beijing seized in June 2012. Chinese in the past have fired water cannon at vessels of other countries in the area.
Reuters journalists visited the coral atoll this month and saw a substantially larger Chinese coastguard and fishing presence than usual, although it was allowing Filipinos to fish inside the shoal for the first time since the blockade.
Reporting by Manuel Mogato; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Martin Petty and Clarence Fernandez