Japan yesterday released the 14 crew members of a Chinese fishing trawler that collided with two Japan Coast Guard vessels in disputed waters last week, but kept its captain in detention.
The incident has sparked a diplomatic row between the Asian powers, with China calling off planned talks over contested oil and gas fields in the East China Sea and summoning Tokyo’s ambassador four times to protest.
Japan’s top government spokesman Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku said questioning of the crew had been completed, meaning there was no reason to keep them in Japan, and that prosecutors had also finished collecting evidence from the ship.
Just before noon, the Chinese fishermen left the airport on Japan’s far-southern Ishigaki Island on a chartered flight, Kyodo News agency reported.
Another skipper was flying over from China to return the fishing boat to its home port, Sengoku added.
The fishing boat’s captain, Zhan Qixiong (詹其雄), was arrested on Wednesday last week on suspicion of obstructing officers on duty, a charge that carries up to three years in prison, and a court has since approved his continued detention.
“We will handle this as a criminal case based on Japanese domestic law,” Sengoku told a press briefing.
Tokyo suspects the trawler captain deliberately rammed two Japanese patrol vessels on Tuesday last week near a disputed island chain between Japan’s Okinawa Islands and Taiwan, an archipelago called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyutai in Taiwan and China.
Four Japanese patrol boats later pursued and seized the Chinese trawler.
The uninhabited islands are claimed by Tokyo, Beijing and Taipei and are a frequent focus of regional tensions.
The row has cast a cloud over what had been a steady improvement in relations between the traditional East Asian rivals in recent years, as their economic relationship has deepened.
The dispute escalated on Saturday when a Chinese vessel confronted two Japanese survey ships at sea and Beijing called off talks with Tokyo set for later this month over their competing maritime claims in the area.
The Chinese foreign ministry has said any evidence collected by Japan on the collision would be “illegal, invalid and in vain.”
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