MANILA -- The military on Thursday said it was waiting for the explanation of a group of Filipino fishermen to determine whether or not a Chinese boat purposely hit their ship and abandoned them in the South China Sea.
The Filipino vessel was anchored near Reed Bank on Sunday -- claimed by both Manila and Beijing -- when it collided with a Chinese vessel, causing it to sink and leaving 22 crewmen "to the mercy of the elements," Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana earlier said.
A nearby Vietnamese fishing vessel helped the crew until other Filipino ships arrived and towed their craft, said Brig. Gen. Edgard Arevalo, Armed Forces of the Philippines spokesman.
The fishermen, he said, would be brought to Puerto Princesa, Palawan, where authorities would get their statement.
"Mahalaga ang impormasyon na makukuha natin sapagkat ito ang gagamitin na report sa ating higher level of government para kung mayroon man po silang diplomatic protest na ihahain for example ay magagamit po nila," Arevalo told DZMM.
(The information that we will get is important because this will be used for a report for the higher level of our government, which could use this if they file a diplomatic protest.)
The fishermen, who are expected to reach Palawan on Friday, initially reported the Chinese ship rammed with them intentionally, said Elizer Salilig, director of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources-Mimaropa.
"Binangga, sinadya pero puwet lang [ng bangka] ang tinamaan," he said in a separate DZMM interview.
(It was intentionally hit, but only the stern of the boat was affected.)
Defense Spokesman Arsenio Andolong earlier said his agency has yet to confirm whether the vessel was Chinese-registered, adding it was the Filipino fishermen who identified it as such.
Like the Philippines, Vietnam has partial claims over the South China Sea, where Beijing claims "indisputable sovereignty" and built artificial islands with military facilities and airstrips.
Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia also have claims in the area.
Competing claims over the South China Sea is a point of regional contention because trillions of dollars of goods pass through it, and rich petroleum reserves are thought to sit deep beneath its waters.
Reed Bank is about 150 kilometers off Palawan. It is within Manila's 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone and far from China's nearest major landmass.
In 2011, the Philippines accused Chinese vessels of harassing an exploration vessel off Reed Bank.
Manila won a key 2016 ruling against China's claims in the waterway, but President Rodrigo Duterte opted to set it aside to court Chinese investment and trade. His predecessor, former President Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III, initiated the case.
But Duterte in May warned that the South China Sea was becoming a "flashpoint."
"I love China... but it behooves upon us to ask, 'is it right for a country to claim the whole ocean'?" he asked.
With a report from Agence France-Presse