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Navy frigate to defend Taiwan fishermen
Updated: 2005-06-21 11:42

Taiwan sent a navy frigate with anti-ship missiles Tuesday, June 26, to defend fishermen who repeatedly have been chased from disputed East China Sea waters by Japanese patrol boats.

Japanese navy vessels chase away Taiwanese fishing boats in the East China Sea in this undated file AP photo.
A group of 15 Taiwanese "lawmakers" - led by "Legislative Speaker" Wang Jin-pyng and escorted by "Defense Minister" Lee Jye - was aboard the Knox-class frigate when it departed Taiwan's eastern Suao port for the four-hour trip to an island group that both Tokyo and China's Taiwan claim is in their exclusive economic zone.

"This area belongs to us historically, geographically and legally. There is no question about it," Wang told reporters before boarding on Tuesday.

"We must defend our sovereignty and protect our fishing rights," said Wang.

Taiwan fishermen said they have been repeatedly driven away by Japanese patrol boats in what they said were their traditional fishing grounds. They have demanded government protection.

The cluster of tiny, uninhabited islands in the East China Sea provides access to the fishing grounds and possible oil deposits.

"It's good to see it's finally our turn to scare the Japanese. They have always bullied us and make us feel we are thieves at sea," a fisherman in Suao told local cable news network, TVBS.

Two Taiwan Navy Knox-class frigates prepare to embark from Taiwan's eastern coastal port of Suao to islands north of Taiwan to protect Taiwan fishermen June 21,2005. [AP]
China and Japan, the world's second- and third-biggest oil consumers respectively, have been at odds for months over China's exploration for natural gas in the East China Sea near an area Japan claims as its exclusive economic zone.

Taiwan military officials said the U.S.-made frigate equipped with anti-ship missiles would sail to the disputed waters but not go as far as the Diaoyu islands.

About 50 fishing boats from Taiwan sailed to the waters this month in a protest to challenge Tokyo's claim. Japan sent helicopters to monitor the event but avoided a conflict by not sending patrol boats.

Taiwan has said more than 10 of its fishing boats in the area had been expelled or detained by Japan this year and urged Tokyo to resolve the issue quickly through negotiations.

Japan's representative in Taipei, Tadashi Ikeda, warned Taiwan on Monday that plans for the frigate's trip were inappropriate, saying the military should not be brought into a fishing dispute.

The 3,800-ton "Fengyang," equipped with anti-ship missiles, was to sail 60 nautical miles (110 kilometers) to the group of uninhabited islands north of Taiwan known as Sakashima in Japan and Hsientao in Taiwan. The waters surrounding the islands are rich in fish.

Taiwan has long avoided sending naval ships to protect its fishing boats against interference by Japanese patrol boats, fearing conflict with Japan, major trading partner.

The decision to send the frigate follows complaints by fishermen that Taiwanese authorities have not done enough to protect them from Japanese patrol boats in the disputed area.

Japan often fines ship owners and impounds Taiwanese fishing vessels that enter the waters.

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