Philippine group calls civilian mission in South China Sea a ‘major victory’

MANILA/BEIJING (Reuters) -A Philippine group leading a civilian supply mission in the South China Sea delivered food and fuel to Filipino fishermen despite being shadowed by Chinese vessels, its officials said on Thursday, calling it a “major victory”.

A 10-member team was sent by the Atin Ito (This is Ours) group to the Scarborough Shoal a day ahead of a commercial flotilla of five commercial vessels and 100 small fishing boats that departed on May 15. Ultimately, the rest of the flotilla turned back without reaching the shoal.

“The mission achieved a major victory when its advance team reached the vicinity of Panatag Shoal on May 15 (and) was able to supply the fishers in the area,” said Emman Hizon, Atin Ito spokesperson, using the local name of Scarborough.

Located inside Manila’s 200 nautical-mile (370km) exclusive economic zone, the Scarborough Shoal is coveted for its bountiful fish stocks and a turquoise lagoon that provides safe haven for vessels during storms.

China claims sovereignty over the shoal and almost all the South China Sea, including parts claimed by the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam, despite a 2016 ruling by The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration that found its sweeping claims have no legal basis.

China’s state news agency Xinhua said the Chinese coast guard on Thursday “intensified on-site surveillance and evidence collection” after Philippine vessels “illegally gathered” in waters near Scarborough Shoal and engaged in activities “unrelated to normal fishing operations”.

The Chinese coast guard has “regulated the Philippine vessels at the scene in accordance with the law,” it added.

Calling the mission a “publicity stunt”, Yuyuan Tantian, a social media user affiliated with Chinese state broadcaster CCTV, said the Philippine vessels “stopped moving forward at nearly 60 nautical miles in the waters east of Huangyan Island and has now departed,” it added.

Hizon told Reuters the advance team was part of the group’s contingency plan in case China blocked the main flotilla, which he said would make its way back to port on Thursday after having sailed to a point about 50 nautical miles from the shoal.

Hizon said the larger flotilla was not needed because the fishermen, already supplied by the advance team, left the area after being driven away by Chinese vessels.

A Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) aircraft deployed to monitor the situation at Scarborough Shoal on Wednesday spotted 19 Chinese vessels, including one Chinese navy ship, in the area. The PCG said it was also monitoring two floating barriers at the southeastern entrance of the shoal.

The PCG was not part of the mission, but deployed vessels to provide safety and security for the civilian volunteers. The PCG said two Chinese Coast Guard ships shadowed Atin Ito boats.

(Reporting by Karen Lema and Adrian Portugal in Manila; Additional Reporting by Ella Cao in Beijing. Editing by Gerry Doyle and Sharon singleton)

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