China admits sending vessels to disputed atoll to tow ship

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — China admitted on Wednesday (March 2) that it did send vessels to a disputed atoll in the South China Sea recently — but only to tow a stranded fishing boat.

Hong Lei, spokesman of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, explained that the Chinese Coast Guard was informed about a foreign fishing vessel which was abandoned near the Jackson Atoll (Quirino Atoll) of the Nansha Islands (Spratly Islands).

Hong said the boat ran aground around late last year. Reuters reported that the stranded vessel was a Filipino ship.

"To avoid long-term stranding that might affect navigation safety and damage the marine environment, the China Rescue and Salvage unit of Ministry of Transport recently sent salvage vessels to tow the fishing boat and have handled it properly," Hong told reporters.

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Hong also said that during the towing operation, Chinese vessels temporarily stopped fishing boats near the area. He said these Chinese vessels promptly left the site when the towing was finished.

Hong, however, repeated Beijing's stance that China holds "indisputable sovereignty" over the islands in the South China Sea, including Jackson Atoll.

"China stands ready to make concerted efforts with ASEAN countries to comprehensively and effectively implement the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties and jointly safeguard peace and stability of the South China Sea," he added.

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Vice Admiral Alexander Lopez, commander of the military's Western Command, confirmed that there were indeed no more Chinese vessels in the area.

Lopez added that when planes flew over the area last week, Filipinos were already fishing there.

Meanwhile, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said it was monitoring the situation even if Chinese vessels were no longer stationed in the area.

The DFA also reiterated its call for China "to exercise self-restraint from the conduct of activities that could complicate or escalate disputes in the South China Sea and affect peace and stability in the region."

CNN's Shen Lu in Beijing contributed to this report.