China seizes two ships in Hong Kong

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The Independent Online

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The Chinese ambassador in London was summoned to the Foreign Office yesterday for a formal protest over the capture and detention of two Hong Kong vessels and their crewmen, who were seized at gunpoint in the colony's territorial waters.

The incident has caused a political uproar in Hong Kong, and could further damage Britain's relations with China, already strained over plans for the transition to Chinese rule in 1997. The Hong Kong government said it was "very concerned" over the incident, while an internal police report, leaked to the South China Morning Post, said "this blatant incursion has heightened the fear that we have already lost control".

The summoning of China's ambassador, Ma Yuzhen, was seen in London as a last resort after representations to the local Chinese authorities failed to produce results. The Foreign Office Minister of State Alistair Goodlad told the ambassador of Britain's "concern over this very serious incident" and urged China "to take quick and responsible action to resolve the issue".

The British ambassador in Peking is to make a parallel protest at the foreign ministry this morning, and Chris Patten, the Governor of Hong Kong, has ordered the Royal Navy to review its rules of engagement in the waters around the colony. However, the Hong Kong squadron is a shadow of its former self: it has three patrol craft, and about two dozen Marines with "Rigid Raiders", small fast assault craft.

Mr Patten has also instructed the Hong Kong police to take a robust approach to any future infringements of territorial waters by Chinese boats.

On 18 March two vessels were confronted by armed mainland Chinese security forces eight miles inside the colony's territorial waters. Shots were fired across the bows of the vessels before they were seized.

A distress message was picked up at about 9am by Hong Kong's Marine Police. When they arrived they found six uniformed Chinese security officers, two armed with machine-guns and some wearing hoods, with the Hong Kong vessels.

The South China Morning Post reported that when the policemen attempted to intervene, they were held back at gunpoint. The Hong Kong Security Branch ordered the officers not to provoke a confrontation. The police launches then had to escort the Chinese and their captives south into Chinese waters. The Royal Navy was not called in.

A police official in the southern Chinese city of Zhuhai said two Hong Kong men would be put on trial for attempting to smuggle 47 cars into the country and that an anti-contraband operation had drifted into Hong Kong waters in high winds.

The smuggling of stolen and new cars from Hong Kong to China has been a serious problem for several years.

Allegations of involvement by mainland officials, including customs and police, have complicated diplomatically sensitive incidents when Chinese anti-smuggling pursuit vessels have strayed into Hong Kong's waters.

Emily Lau, an Independent Legislative Council member, said: "It seems that the Chinese are just walking all over Hong Kong and Britain."

A top-level police delegation was due to travel to China yesterday to try to secure the crew's release.