Thu, May 29, 2003 - Page 4 News List

Chinese vessels spotted close to naval exercises

SUSPECTED SPIES The two ships sailed close to Kaohsiung and along the eastern coast respectively, but beat a retreat when navy frigates approached

AP AND AFP , TAIPEI

Two Chinese military ships cruised near Taiwan this week on apparent spy missions, a Taiwanese newspaper and an official said yesterday.

The timing of the alleged spy missions was highly sensitive because Taiwan has been conducting missile tests and anti-submarine exercises near where the vessels appeared, the China Times reported in a front-page story.

Late yesterday, the head of the National Security Council, Kang Ning-hsiang (康寧祥), confirmed the report.

The navy said that a 3,000-tonne Chinese naval ice-breaking ship, the Haibing AZB723, sailed within 94km of Taiwan's southern port of Kaohsiung at 2pm on Sunday.

Taiwanese navy ships came within 5.6km of the vessel before it left Taiwanese waters, the report said.

The second ship, the Xiangyanghong No. 9, was seen on Tuesday between 73 and 91km off Taiwan's eastern coast, the report said. The survey ship was sailing south along Taiwan's coast.

Kang said it was normal for Chinese spy ships to sail near Taiwan while the island conducts military exercises.

He said that the Haibing AZB723 was detected by Taiwan's sea, air and land radar systems. The navy sent Lafayette frigates to monitor the ship, he said.

``The [Chinese ship] had no missiles, so it wasn't all that dangerous, but we still had to watch it,'' he said.

The navy and the Coast Guard Administration scrambled to send a Lafayette-class frigate and a patrol boat to keep watch on the armed Chinese vessel, which sailed around there until Tuesday.

The coast guard said it was also watching the other Chinese surveillance ship, sailing off the northeast coast of Taiwan.

"Obviously they were there to collect military-related information particularly when some programs of the Han Kuang exercise were being held in the two areas," Kang said.

Kang did not provide details about the largest annual drills yet, but the operations of the two Chinese ships came as the Taiwanese military were conducting anti-submarine and live-fire missile exercises in the areas.

The Taiwanese kept a close but cautious eye on the ships, fearing an unexpected clash could lead to military conflict between Taiwan and China, which have been foes since their split in 1949 at the end of the civil war.

Kang called for the establishment of a "mutual trust" military mechanism to avoid unexpected clashes between the two nations, which could spell disaster.

A Chinese surveillance ship HaiYang 4 was last found southeast of the island on April 9.

Taipei protested to Beijing in November after it found a similar Chinese surveillance ship, indentified as Xiangyanghong 14, intruding on Taiwan's turf.

Relations between Taiwan and China are still hostile despite the start of civil contacts in 1987.

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