Retrieval efforts underway for Navy ship 'slightly damaged' in South China Sea

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, August 31) — The government is working on the retrieval of a Philippine Navy warship that ran aground at a shoal in the disputed South China Sea Wednesday night, officials said Friday.

There was "minimal damage" to BRP Gregorio del Pilar, a Hamilton-class cutter which the Navy acquired from the U.S. Coast Guard in 2011. It is stranded at an area near Hasa-Hasa or Half Moon Shoal some 100 kilometers off Palawan, Armed Forces public affairs chief Col. Noel Detoyato told reporters in a phone interview.

According to the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), the hull and right propeller were slightly damaged, but all 117 crew members, including 15 officers, are safe and unharmed. Some coral reefs were also destroyed.

"All afloat vessels in the Western Command area have already been mobilized to conduct assessment, retrieve the aground vessel and return her to safe harbor, and assist all personnel aboard BRP Del Pilar," the AFP said in a statement.

Detoyato, however, said it might take two more days before tugboats can come to the area to retrieve the stranded ship.

"By next week siguro mawawala na yun dun, by this weekend pa lang ata darating yung tugboat dun (By next week the ship can be retrieved. I think the tugboat will arrive this weekend)," he said.

He assured that Philippine Navy's flagship is "secure," noting that a Coast Guard vessel and a Navy boat are already in the area as of Friday morning.

Detoyato said the Coast Guard will help unload the crew and equipment to lighten its load. Upon salvage, the ship will be brought to the nearest navy port in Palawan.

The AFP said it would investigate the incident to find out the possible causes of the grounding and prevent similar events from happening.

'Let's not speculate'

Malacañang, meanwhile, refused to comment on what China would do after the grounding incident.

"Let's not speculate," Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said in a Palace press briefing on Friday, assuring the public that the government is working towards retrieving the ship.

Greg Poling, director of U.S.-based think tank Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), earlier warned that "China might try to play the situation to its advantage by offering assistance."

"Worse, China could unilaterally act to "assist" the ship stranded on what China calls Banyue Jiao & prevent Philippine ships from intervening," Poling said in a series of tweets Thursday night.

He noted the Chinese government has done this in 2016, when it closed Jackson Atoll, which Philippines calls Quirino Atoll, to remove a "foreign vessel" there. Some reports say it was a Filipino vessel, but this was not confirmed.

Detoyato said the Philippine Navy and Coast Guard are capable of carrying out the salvage operations but he's not aware if China offered any help.

"We did not ask for help from anybody... We can on our own, we can resolve this one," Detoyato said.

The Hasa-Hasa Shoal and Qurino Atoll are both in the West Philippine Sea, the 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the country, as stated in the July 2016 arbitral ruling.

China has refused to acknowledge the landmark ruling and continues to claim the South China Sea in its entirety. President Rodrigo Duterte has repeatedly said the country cannot afford to go to war against China, but he promised to bring up the arbitral ruling with the East Asian giant during his term.

CNN Philippines' David Santos and Gerg Cahiles contributed to this report.