HANOI, Vietnam - Five Buddhist monks from Vietnam have set sail for the disputed Spratly islands where they will spend six months setting up pagodas in the archipelago, also claimed by China, a senior monk said Friday.
The monks will re-establish three temples which were abandoned by Vietnam in 1975 but have been recently renovated as part of the communist country's drive to assert its territorial claims over the potentially oil-rich islands.
"We plan to stay on the Truong Sa (Spratly) Islands for six months," Thich Giac Nghia told AFP by phone on board a boat sailing towards the islands in the Spratly chain which are held by Vietnam.
The team will stay on one of the larger islands which is under Vietnamese military control. One more monk will join the team at a later date, he added.
The monks aim to improve the spiritual lives of island's Vietnamese community -- mostly military staff and small-scale farmers and fishermen -- and to help them overcome daily hardships, Nghia has said.
Vietnam's claim to the Spratlys competes directly with China, which says it has sovereignty over essentially all of the South China Sea, a key global trading route.
In 1988 China attacked the Ga Mac Island -- another of the larger Spratly Islands under Vietnamese military control -- killing 64 Vietnamese soldiers.
Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, and the Philippines also claim all or part of the potentially oil-rich Spratlys.
All claimants except Brunei have troops based on the archipelago of more than 100 islets, reefs and atolls, which have a total land mass of less than five square kilometres (two square miles).
The Philippines and Vietnam have recently complained of increasing harassment of their fisherman by Chinese vessels in the region.
Vietnam and China also have a long-standing dispute over the Paracel island group.
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