BEIJING - The Chinese fishermen detained by South Korean authorities are likely to return home on Saturday, after the charges against them were dropped a day before.
Three Chinese fishermen were booked on a charge of "obstructing the duty of civil servants" after a collision between their trawler and a patrolling South Korean vessel in the Yellow Sea on Dec 18.
However, South Korean coast guard officials decided to drop the charges on Friday, citing their "lack of direct involvement in the incident" and "active cooperation in the investigation", according to the Yonhap News Agency.
The report said the coast guard plans to arrange for the men to return to China on Saturday, if the prosecution body agrees.
"This is an issue of whether the fishing boat was involved in illegal activities or not, and whether our enforcement was excessive," South Korea's Joongang Daily quoted a foreign ministry official in Seoul as saying on Wednesday.
"It is not desirable for either we or China to make a big diplomatic issue out of this," the paper quoted him as saying.
Observers were concerned that the incident, if not dealt with appropriately, might have escalated and triggered a wider dispute.
Beijing noted that Seoul has for many times expressed condolences and regret over the incident, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said on Thursday.
The collision left the captain of the trawler dead and another fisherman missing and presumed dead.
"We have been in touch with South Korea and hope the incident will be carefully resolved soon," Jiang said.
South Korean reports claimed that the 63-ton Chinese trawler Liaoyingyu 35403, deliberately "slammed" itself against the 3,000-ton South Korean coast guard vessel.
The coast guards tried to board the Chinese ship but the fishermen defended themselves. The men were accused of "operating illegally" in South Korea's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
The China-South Korea fishery agreement allows fishermen from both countries to fish in each other's EEZ, but only if they have a license to do so, said the Joongang Daily.
Officials from the South Korean Foreign Ministry met the Chinese ambassador on Thursday and exchanged views on the incident, according to Yonhap News Agency.
The report said the discussion included the return of the remaining fishermen. The agency quoted a South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman as saying that both China and South Korea agreed the incident should not escalate into a diplomatic row, nor should it affect bilateral relations.
The three previously charged fishermen have undergone "intensive questioning" at an office in Gunsan, about 270 km south of Seoul, a separate Yonhap report quoted an unnamed official source as saying.