MANILA - Philippine police chief Alan Purisima defended Thursday the detainment of 11 Chinese fishermen caught poaching in Philippine waters in the South China Sea, after Beijing called for their immediate release.
The 11 Chinese nationals were caught Tuesday in a boat in waters off Half Moon Shoal of the Spratly Islands with 120 live and 234 dead turtles.
On Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying argued that China has "indisputable sovereignty" over the areas in the South China Sea where the fishermen were before they were detained.
"That is their assertion. Our assertion is, that (area) is ours also. So that is Philippine territory. That's why there is a dispute," Purisima said at a press conference.
Police maritime group head Noel Vargas, whose personnel detained the fishermen, said at the same briefing the operation was sanctioned by a Philippine law on the conservation and protection of wildlife resources.
Vargas invoked the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which sets a 200 nautical mile (about 370 kilometers) exclusive economic zone for member countries, including the Philippines. He said the foreign vessel, which carried a Chinese flag, was around 106 km from Rizal town in the Philippines' westernmost island province Palawan.
Vargas also denied reports in Chinese media that shots were fired.
Rejecting China's statement that the Philippine action was provocative, Purisima said, "That is their statement, but we're just doing our job."
The two officials said the case had been forwarded to an inter-agency body that will conduct further investigation and decide whether or not charges will be filed against the apprehended persons.
They also referred to the same body the issue of whether or not the suspects will be released, as demanded by China, saying handling of diplomatic intervention is beyond their authority.
In a statement Thursday, Zhang Hua, spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Manila, said "solemn representations" had been lodged by the embassy to the Philippine side over the incident, reiterating China's "indisputable sovereignty over Nansha Islands and their adjacent waters, including the Banyue Reef," China's name for Half Moon Shoal.
"This provocative action is premeditated in an attempt to create tensions, and severely violates China's sovereignty and maritime rights," Zhang said.
"The Chinese side warns the Philippine side not to take provocative actions, so as to avoid further damage to the bilateral relations," he added.
The Philippine foreign affairs department had said that "the seizing of the Chinese fishing boat, carrying large numbers of endangered species, and the apprehension of its crew by the Philippine National Police Maritime Group Special Boat Unit were undertaken as actions to enforce maritime laws and uphold Philippine sovereign rights over its exclusive economic zone."
Aside from the Chinese boat, a Filipino boat with five crew and loaded with sea turtles was also apprehended.