Fri, Jan 03, 2014 - Page 1 News List

Japan beats CGA to rescue of balloonist

BALLOONING CONFLICT:Japan’s coast guard outraced its Taiwanese counterpart to save the Chinese man, but China did not acknowledge Japan’s part in the rescue

By Shih Hsiu-chuan  /  Staff reporter and AFP, TOKYO

A photograph taken by the Japan Coast Guard on Wednesday shows a hot air balloon that was carrying a Chinese man as it lands on the water, south of the disputed Diaoyutai Islands in the East China Sea.

Photo: AFP / JAPAN COAST GUARD

The Coast Guard Administration (CGA) yesterday said that it had tried to rescue a Chinese hot-air balloonist who crashed into the ocean during an attempt to land on the contested Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) on Wednesday before he was picked up by the Japan Coast Guard.

According to a report by Japanese public broadcaster NHK, the Japan Coast Guard was informed by its Taiwanese counterpart of the man’s distress call.

The NHK report said that the Chinese man, later identified as Xu Shuaijun (許帥軍), 35, told Japan Coast Guard personnel that he left China alone to fly to the islands, which Japan claims and calls the Senkakus, and which are also claimed by Taiwan and China.

Although Xu was rescued by the Japanese first, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Anna Kao (高安) yesterday reiterated that the Diaoyutais are the territory of the Republic of China, adding that the concerned parties cooperated in rescue efforts out of humanitarian concerns.

CGA Secretariat Director Hsieh Ching-chin (謝慶欽) said that upon receiving information from National Rescue Command Center, the Coast Guard Administration dispatched the 800 tonne-class Mou Hsing to search for the balloonist.

Taiwanese fishing ships operating in waters surrounding the area were also told by the Fisheries Agency to help locate the missing man, Hsieh said.

The National Rescue Command Center reported that the balloon crashed into the ocean about 17 nautical miles (31.5km) off the south of the Diaoyutais at 2:26pm on Wednesday, Hsieh said.

The Mou Hsing returned to normal patrol duties when the CGA received information from the Japan Coast Guard that the man was rescued at about 3pm about 18 nautical miles off the south of the islands, Hsieh said.

A Japanese patrol ship rescued Xu and handed him over to a Chinese patrol ship on Wednesday night after negotiations through diplomatic channels, the NHK reported.

Beijing declined to acknowledge any Japanese role in his rescue.

Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Qin Gang (秦剛) told reporters only that a “Chinese coast guard vessel patrolling in waters of the Diaoyu Islands (釣魚群島) learned that one Chinese balloonist fell into the water.”

“The coast guard vessel came to the waters where the accident took place to help the balloonist and the relevant person has been rescued and transferred to the Chinese side,” he said at a regular briefing in Beijing.

The man was drifting inside Japanese territorial waters when he was picked up, the NHK reported.

Xu took off from China’s Fujian Province on Wednesday morning, a Japan Coast Guard official said.

It was an ambitious goal — hot-air balloons travel largely at the mercy of the wind, and the Diaoyutais are tiny specks in the East China Sea, 359km from his take-off point.

Xu sent a request for help several hours into his flight and ditched in the sea.

Xu, a cook, last year became the first man to pilot a hot-air balloon over northeast China’s Bohai Bay.

On his verified account on a Chinese microblogging site, Xu posted a short message declaring that he had been returned safely to Fuqing in China’s Fujian Province.

“I have returned safely,” Xu wrote. “Thanks everyone for your concern.”

His supporters wrote back with words of support, with many declaring him a “hero” who had done well even if he had fallen short of his target.

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