- Associated Press - Friday, October 28, 2016

MANILA, Philippines (AP) - The Philippine defense chief said Friday that authorities are trying to verify a report that Chinese coast guard ships have left a disputed shoal, allowing Filipino fishermen to sail back to the rich fishing area that China seized in 2012.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the Philippine coast guard has reported that Chinese coast guard ships have not been sighted at Scarborough Shoal in the last three days, but he added the report has to be validated.

Lorenzana told The Associated Press that the Philippine air force plans to conduct aerial surveillance of the shoal off the northwestern Philippines as early as Saturday to check the situation.

China took effective control of Scarborough in 2012 after a tense standoff with Philippine vessels. Since then, Chinese coast guard ships have been driving Filipino fishermen away from the area.

“If the Chinese ships have left, then it means our fishermen can resume fishing in the area. We welcome this development,” Lorenzana told reporters earlier Friday. “Our fishermen have not been fishing there since 2012. This will return to them their traditional source of livelihood.”

Lorenzana, however, said he ordered that to be verified as well.

A year after China took control of Scarborough, then-President Benigno Aquino III took the issue to international arbitration. In July, a tribunal ruled that China had violated Filipinos’ right to fish in their traditional fishing grounds. It also invalidated Beijing’s sweeping territorial claims in the South China Sea. China ignored the ruling and its coast guard continued to block Filipino fishermen from the shoal.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the U.S. was still assessing reports that Chinese boats have left Scarborough Shoal, and Filipinos have resumed fishing there.

“We hope it is certainly not a temporary measure. We would like it to be a sign that China and the Philippines are moving toward an agreement on fishing access at Scarborough that would be in accordance with the July 12 arbitral decision,” Toner told reporters.

Current Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has attempted to improve relations with China. After visiting Beijing last week, he said without elaborating that Filipino fishermen “may” be able to return to Scarborough after he discussed the territorial rift with Chinese leaders.

He said he insisted in his talks with Chinese leaders that the shoal belonged to the Philippines, but that the Chinese also asserted their claim of ownership.


Associated Press writer Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.

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