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PH, US verifying if Chinese left Panatag

The Philippines and the US are trying to verify a report that Chinese Coast Guard ships have left a disputed shoal, allowing Filipino fishermen back to the rich fishing area that China seized in 2012, triggering tensions in the South China Sea.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the Philippine Coast Guard has reported that Chinese ships have not been sighted at Scarborough Shoal or Panatag Shoal in the last three days, but he added the report has to be validated.

Lorenzana told The Associated Press that the Philippine Air Force plans to conduct aerial surveillance of the shoal off the northwestern Philippines as early as Saturday to check the situation.

China took effective control of Scarborough in 2012, after a tense standoff with Philippine vessels. Since then, Chinese Coast Guard ships have been driving Filipino fishermen away from the area, while farther south in the Spratly Islands, China went on to construct seven man-made islands despite protests from other claimants.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the US was still assessing reports that Chinese boats have left Scarborough Shoal, and Filipinos have resumed fishing there.

“We hope it is certainly not a temporary measure. We would like it to be a sign that China and the Philippines are moving toward an agreement on fishing access at Scarborough that would be in accordance with the July 12 arbitral decision,” Toner told reporters.

A year after China took control of Scarborough, then President Aquino took the issue to international arbitration.

In July, a tribunal ruled that China had violated Filipinos’ right to fish in their traditional fishing grounds. It also invalidated Beijing’s sweeping territorial claims in the South China Sea. China ignored the ruling and its coast guard continued to block Filipino fishermen from the shoal. (AP)