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Philippine fishers killed after collision with suspected oil tanker in South China Sea

Three fishers died after a Philippine fishing boat collided with a foreign commercial vessel in the disputed South China Sea, the Philippine coast guard has said.

The coast guard said the incident happened at about 4.20am on Monday in waters off Scarborough Shoal, according to a crew member on board. Ten fishers survived the incident and were able to seek assistance.

The fishers’ mother boat, which was moored for fishing 85 nautical miles north-west of Scarborough Shoal, was submerged, resulting in the death of its three crew members, including its boat captain, the coast guard said.

An incident report released by the coast guard on Wednesday morning said that, after cross-referencing the fishers’s account with marine traffic information, it had found that a crude oil tanker vessel, registered under the flag of Marshall Island, aligned with the descriptions given.

“The PCG [Philippine Coast Guard] will reach out to the flag of the vessel and next port to be visited by the said vessel to be boarded by the port state control officers,” the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) said.

Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos said he was deeply saddened by the deaths.

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“We assure the victims, their families, and everyone that we will exert every effort to hold accountable those who are responsible for this unfortunate maritime incident,” Marcos said. He added: “let us refrain from engaging in speculation in the meantime”.

The 10 crew members who survived the incident transported the dead to Infanta, in the province of Pangasinan, where they arrived at 10am on Tuesday.

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According to a survivor’s account cited by the PCG, adverse weather caused particularly dark conditions, and the crew on board the mother boat failed to detect an unidentified vessel approaching, resulting in a collision.

The South China Sea is one of the world’s most fiercely contested waterways, and has been subject of increased tensions over recent months. China claims the water almost in its entirety – although a UN tribunal found this to be without legal basis. The Philippines, as well as Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have competing claims.

Scarborough Shoal is claimed by both the Philippines and China, and the latter effectively controls it. Sovereignty has never been established.

Last week the Philippines condemned the Chinese Coast Guard, which it accused of installing a hazardous floating barrier in the waters near to Scarborough Shoal, saying this was a violation of international law. At the time, China defended its actions as “professional and restrained”.

The Philippines carried out a “special operation” to remove the barrier, posing as fishers to enter the shoal, before diving down with snorkels and cutting away at the rope.