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South Korea vows armed crackdown against Chinese fishing boats after sinking of coast guard ship

South Korea said on Tuesday it would use greater force, including firearms, against Chinese boats fishing illegally in its waters and summoned China’s ambassador to protest against a clash between a Chinese vessel and a coast guard boat.

The sinking happened Friday when coast guard officers were trying to stop about 40 Chinese fishing boats from suspected illegal fishing in the Yellow Sea off South Korea’s west coast. No casualties were reported, according to the coast guard.

One coast guard officer was on the South Korean vessel rammed by two Chinese boats before he jumped into the water and was rescued by his colleagues. Eight other coast guard officers had boarded a Chinese boat for an inspection, the coast guard said in a statement.

South Korea’s Foreign Ministry on Tuesday summoned the Chinese ambassador, Qiu Guohong, and complained about the sinking. On Sunday, the ministry summoned the Chinese consul general, according to ministry officials.

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The ambassador did not comment to reporters as he arrived at the foreign ministry.

Beijing’s Foreign Ministry said Monday that Chinese authorities were still verifying the situation but urged South Korea to remain calm.

A South Korean deputy foreign minister told the Chinese ambassador that the incident was “a challenge to public power”, said Cho June-hyuck, spokesman for the ministry.

South Korean media reported that coast guard officers fired shots at the fishing boats and into the sky as the boats approached the South Korean vessel.

Coast guard officials said Tuesday that they can confirm that warning shots were fired into the sky, but said they were still investigating if any were fired at the Chinese boats.

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The Coast Guard warned of eased restrictions on the use of weapons – ranging from ship’s cannon to crew sidearms – during such altercations.

“So far we have been very cautious using such crew service weapons but now… we will take a more aggressive stance in using them when our officers are in danger,” senior coastguard official Lee Chun-jae said.

The current rules on the use of firearms have “a very limited scope,” Lee said, adding they would be revised as soon as possible to allow officers more freedom.

“We plan to use any firearm, whether crew service weapon or individual weapon, to enforce our laws on those who violently protest,” Lee said.

The coast guard said the vessel that was sunk, at 4.5 tonnes, was dispatched from a larger ship to inspect the fishing boats. It said one of the Chinese boats was much larger at 100 tonnes.

South Korean media reports have said the Chinese vessel fled the scene and was believed to have returned to its home port.

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Violent clashes have occurred in recent years between South Korea’s coast guard and Chinese fishing boats venturing farther from their increasingly barren home waters.

Three Chinese fishermen were killed last month in a fire that broke out on their boat when a South Korean coast guard crew trying to apprehend them for illegal fishing threw flash grenades into a room in which they were hiding, according to a South Korean official.

In June, South Korea and the United Nations Command, which oversees the Korean war armistice, launched a joint operation to keep Chinese fishing vessels from operating illegally off South Korea’s west coast.

South Korea has repeated its complaint to China about illegal fishing by Chinese trawlers and urged Beijing to help come up with a permanent solution.

Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France-Presse