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PHL vessel evades China 'blockade' of disputed reef

Filipino soldiers aboard a fishing vessel engaged Saturday in a dramatic stand-off with Chinese coastguard ships near a remote South China Sea reef claimed by both countries, an AFP journalist witnessed.

The Philippine ship finally slipped past the Chinese blockade to reach Second Thomas Shoal, where a handful of Filipino marines are stationed on a Navy vessel that has been grounded there since 1999 to assert their nation's sovereignty.

The Philippine military said the ship, a fishing vessel with soldiers on board, had completed its mission to deliver fresh supplies to the navy ship and rotate the troops.

"They were able to pass through the Chinese coastguard vessel and the mission is a success," Cherryl Tindog, a spokeswoman for the military's western command, told AFP.

"We have successfully re-supplied and rotated the troops."

An AFP reporter and photographer were on a Philippine military plane that circled above the area during the stand-off, which they said lasted for about two hours.

Four Chinese vessels had encircled Second Thomas Shoal as the Philippine vessel approached, according to the AFP reporter.

Two of the vessels, with "Chinese coastguard" written on the side of the boats, then chased the Philippine boat and tried to block it from reaching the shoal.

The vessels appeared to get within a few hundred meters of each other.

China claims most of the South China Sea, even waters and islets approaching its neighbors.

Second Thomas Shoal is part of the Spratlys, a chain of islets and reefs that sit near key shipping lanes, are surrounded by rich fishing grounds and are also believed to lie atop huge oil and gas reserves.

They are around 200 kilometers (125 miles) from the western Philippine island of Palawan and about 1,100 kilometers from the nearest major Chinese land mass.

The Philippines grounded an old Navy ship, the BRP Sierra Madre, at Second Thomas Shoal in 1999, four years after China built structures on nearby, Filipino-claimed Mischief Reef.

Filipino troops have kept a presence on the ship ever since.

However, until this month, China had never sought to block the Philippines from re-supplying or rotating its soldiers there.

China successfully turned away a Philippine re-supply boat on March 9. Saturday's mission was the next attempt.

Although the military does not release figures on the number of soldiers stationed at Second Thomas Shoal, there are believed to be fewer than 10.

Saturday's confrontation occurred a day before the Philippines was due to file its case with a United Nations tribunal to challenge China's territorial claim to most of the South China Sea.

The Philippines' legal case has infuriated China, which has said it will not participate. China has also warned the Philippines that bilateral relations will suffer if it continues to pursue its appeal to the United Nations. — Agence France-Presse