Reports Conflict on Detained Fishermen

Despite China’s growing involvement in Sri Lanka’s development and the construction of port Hambantota, China Daily reports Sri Lanka has arrested 37 Chinese fishermen for fishing in Sri Lankan waters. These reports come amid the growing maritime conflict in the South China Sea:

Navy spokesman Commander Kosala Warnakulasuriya told Xinhua on Monday that the Chinese were arrested for fishing in Sri Lankan waters illegally and would be handed over to police for further investigations.

The fishermen were aboard two fishing trawlers when they were spotted off the eastern coast of Batticaloa, he said, adding that two Sri Lankans were also arrested.

The Chinese embassy had called for the fishermen’s release, from the BBC:

China has called for the men to be released. The arrests are being seen as a test of increasingly close ties between Beijing and Colombo.

China’s embassy in Colombo had “urged Sri Lankan authorities to handle the issue in accordance with the law, sort out the truth and release the Chinese fishermen as soon as possible”, Xinhua reported earlier.

Analysts say the incident is unusual, but Chinese fishermen are increasingly travelling further afield because of a lack of fish closer to home.

Sri Lanka’s government says its growing ties with China are purely commercial. But some analysts speculate that Beijing is seeking a naval facility, a prospect that worries Sri Lanka’s close neighbour India.

There are conflicting reports on the status of the fishermen. Xinhua reported the detained fishermen were released, but Sri Lanka had denied these claims, Reuters reports:

Sri Lanka’s navy said on Monday it was still holding 37 Chinese fishermen to appear in court on charges of fishing within its waters, contradicting a report by China’s Xinhua state news agency that they had been released.

“They are in our custody and they have not been released yet,” Sri Lankan Navy spokesman Kosala Warnakulasuriya told Reuters.

“They are being held in Trincomalee,” he said, referring to the island nation’s eastern port city. “They will appear in court tomorrow and they are still on the boat.”

The incident was not the first involving Chinese fishermen this year. In July, a Russian coastguard ship detained 36 Chinese fishermen after firing at Chinese vessels that had been fishing for squid in Russia’s far eastern Primorsky region.

According to another Reuters article, Sri Lanka has now handed the fishermen over to the Chinese embassy in Colombo:

Sri Lanka handed over 37 Chinese fishermen to their embassy on Tuesday, officials said, two days after the Sri Lankan navy arrested them for fishing without permission in the island nation’s offshore waters.

“The fault is not with the (Chinese) crew. The case is against the (Sri Lankan) owner now,” Navy spokesman Kosala Warnakulasuriya told Reuters. “We have handed over the Chinese crew to officials from the Chinese embassy,” he said.

Sri Lanka’s police spokesman, Ajith Rohana, said the two Sri Lankan agents were given bail after appearing in court.

The trawlers have a license to fish outside Sri Lankan waters but were seized while fishing inside the 300 nautical mile zone. The agents’ role was not immediately clear.

Read more about China’s involvement in Sri Lanka, via CDT.

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