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The Star Online: World Updates

Philippine ship dodges China blockade to reach South China Sea outpost

Posted: 29 Mar 2014 09:15 PM PDT

SECOND THOMAS SHOAL, South China Sea (Reuters) - The Philippine government vessel made a dash for shallow waters around the disputed reef in the South China Sea, evading two Chinese coastguard ships trying to block its path to deliver food, water and fresh troops to a military outpost on the shoal.

The cat-and-mouse encounter on Saturday, witnessed by Reuters and other media invited onboard the Philippine ship, was a rare glimpse into the tensions playing out routinely in waters that are one of the region's biggest flashpoints.

It's also a reminder of how assertive China has become in pressing its claims to disputed territory far from its mainland.

"If we didn't change direction, if we didn't change course, then we would have collided with them," Ferdinand Gato, captain of the Philippine vessel, a civilian craft, told Reuters after his boat had anchored on the Second Thomas Shoal under a hot sun.

The outpost is a huge, rusting World War Two transport vessel that the Philippine navy intentionally ran aground in 1999 to mark its claim to the reef.

There, around eight Filipino soldiers live for three months at a time in harsh conditions on a reef that Manila says is within its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ). China, which claims 90 percent of the South China Sea, says the shoal is part of its territory.

Things were going smoothly for the Philippine ship until it was spotted by a Chinese coastguard ship about an hour away from the Second Thomas Shoal. The Chinese boat picked up speed to come near the left of the white Philippine ship, honking its horn at least three times.

The Chinese ship slowed down after a few minutes, but then a bigger coastguard vessel emerged, moving fast to cut the path of the Philippine boat.

The Chinese sent a radio message to the Filipinos, saying they were entering Chinese territory.

"We order you to stop immediately, stop all illegal activities and leave," said the radio message, delivered in English. Gato replied that his mission was to deliver provisions to Philippine troops stationed in the area.

Philippine troops wearing civilian clothes and journalists then flashed "V" for the peace sign at the Chinese.


Instead of stopping or reversing, the Philippine vessel picked up speed and eventually manoeuvred away from the Chinese, entering waters that were too shallow for the bigger coastguard ships.

A U.S. navy plane, a Philippine military aircraft and a Chinese plane - all visible from their markings - flew above the ships at different intervals.

Filipino troops on the civilian vessel clapped as they came within a few metres of the marooned transport ship, the BRP Sierra Madre. Supplies of food and water were then hauled up to troops onboard.

Later, the eight soldiers due to be relieved put on military fatigues for a daily ceremony to lower the Philippine flag at dusk.

They had been scheduled to go home three weeks ago but Chinese ships blocked two Philippine supply vessels from reaching them on March 9, a move protested by Manila and which the United States described as "provocative". The Philippines resorted to air dropping food and water instead.

"What we want to accomplish is for this area to remain ours. This is the one thing that we are guarding here," said sergeant Jerry Fuentes, a Philippine marine set to deploy on the BRP Sierra Madre.

China's Foreign Ministry said late on Saturday that the action by the Philippines would not change the reality of China's sovereignty over the shoal, which Beijing calls Ren'ai reef.

"China will never tolerate the Philippines' occupation of the Ren'ai reef in any form," it said.

China displays its claims to the South China Sea on official maps with a so-called nine-dash line that stretches deep into the maritime heart of Southeast Asia.

The ships of its recently unified coastguard are a fixture around the disputed waters. While they don't have the weaponry of military vessels, thus reducing the risk a confrontation could get out of control, they still represent a potent show of sovereignty.

Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have claims to parts of the potentially energy-rich waters.

Raising the stakes over the South China Sea, the Philippines will file a case against China later on Sunday at an arbitration tribunal in The Hague, subjecting Beijing to international legal scrutiny over the waters for the first time.

Manila is seeking a ruling to confirm its right to exploit the waters in its EEZ as allowed under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), its team of U.S. and British lawyers have said. China has refused to participate in the case at the Permanent Court of Arbitration.

(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Writing by Rosemarie Francisco; Editing by Dean Yates)

Australia taps former defence chief to coordinate MH370 search support

Posted: 29 Mar 2014 08:05 PM PDT

PERTH (Reuters) - Australia has appointed a former chief of its defence forces to coordinate the country's support for the search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said on Sunday.

Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston will lead a new Joint Agency Coordination Centre (JACC) based in Perth, from where the search for the missing plane was being carried out in the Indian Ocean.

The Australian government is coordinating the search for MH370, which has involved 60 aircraft and ships, and cooperation between more than two dozen countries.

The new JACC, headed by Houston, will aim to maintain clear lines of communication between all international partners as well as with the families of passengers, many of whom are expected to travel to Perth.

Malaysia holds overall responsibility for the search for MH370, which vanished from civilian radar screens on March 8, less than one hour into its flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

"The JACC will provide a single contact point for families to gain up-to-date information and travel assistance including visa services, accommodation advice, interpreter services and counselling," Abbott said in a statement.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said 10 aircraft from China, Australia, South Korea, Japan, the United States and Malaysia were searching on Sunday. Eight ships are also involved.

(Reporting by Morag MacKinnon; Editing by Richard Borsuk)

Number of missing in U.S. mudslide drops to 30 as death toll rises

Posted: 29 Mar 2014 07:55 PM PDT

DARRINGTON, Washington (Reuters) - The number of people missing from a landslide that sent a wall of mud cascading over dozens of homes in Washington state dropped to 30 from 90 on Saturday, but the death toll continues to climb as another body was found in the muddy heap of debris.

One week after the catastrophe, the unofficial body count rose to 28. The official tally of those killed is now 18 based on bodies found, extricated and identified by medical examiners.

But with the grim news also came word that the number of missing fell dramatically as officials were able to account for dozens of people as "safe and well."

Rescue and recovery workers pushed through wind and rain on Saturday continuing to comb through debris left after the rain-soaked hillside gave way without warning and destroyed dozens of homes on the outskirts of the rural Washington town of Oso, northeast of Seattle.

"The number is so big and it's so negative. It's hard to grasp," said volunteer Bob Michajla, 66, who has been helping to search part of the debris field that covers a square-mile (2.6 square-km). "These are all friends and neighbours and family. Everybody knows everybody in this valley."

The process of identifying victims has been complicated by the fact that some bodies have not been found intact.


An estimated 180 people lived in the path of the landslide.

As families and friends wait for news of those still unaccounted for, many have turned to social media sites to mourn and share memories of those presumed lost. A memorial page includes pleas for information on many of the missing, as well as prayers, condolences and offers of help.

"I find it difficult to do anything other than try to get updates to see if any new survivors have been found," said 50-year-old Brenda Roberson of nearby Arlington.

The plight of the Spillers family has gotten much attention. Postings on memorial web pages say Billy Spillers, 30, was at home with his four children when the hillside came down on their home.

Four-year-old Jacob Spillers was pulled out alive but his sister Kaylee, 5, was found dead. Billy and his two other children are still unaccounted for. The mother was not at home and survived.

Linda McPherson, 69, a librarian, died as her husband was able to dig himself out, according to the Snohomish County Landslide Victims Memorial Page on Facebook, while a 4-month-old girl and her grandmother were among those who perished.


No one has been pulled alive from the rubble since the day the landslide hit, when at least eight people were injured but survived. Rescuers have found no signs of life since then.

Lifelong Darrington resident Nolan Meece, 19, a recent high school graduate and frequent presence at community meetings about the slide, said he was among the first on the pile, arriving within an hour of the disaster.

"I was out there with my hands digging through all that mud," he said, adding that when he first arrived he heard survivors calling out but that those on the scene could not save them. "The ones I seen did not survive," he said.

The recovery operation has shown no signs of letting up, and heavy equipment operators were working to complete a rudimentary service road for emergency workers connecting the two sides of Highway 530, which was washed out by the slide.

Ron Brown, a Snohomish County official involved in search-and-rescue operations, said the debris field may end up being the final resting place for some victims, who may be buried so thoroughly they cannot be found.

"That's going to be hallowed ground out there," he said.

John Farmer, 52, who lives east of the slide site, suggested at a community meeting on Friday that the site should never be rebuilt but turned into a park or other place of remembrance.

"A place where we can remember our loved ones, our neighbours, our families, our friends," Farmer said.

(Additional reporting by Bryan Cohen in Arlington, Washington; Carey Gillam in Kansas City; and Steve Gorman and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Writing by Carey Gillam and Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Lisa Shumaker, James Dalgleish and Gunna Dickson)


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