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Vietnamese boat sinks after collision with Chinese vessel in disputed waters

By Paul Armstrong, CNN
May 28, 2014 -- Updated 0039 GMT (0839 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Xinhua: Vietnamese fishing boat sank after colliding with Chinese vessel off Paracel Islands
  • Beijing has been drilling for oil near the island chain in the South China Sea both nations claim
  • Vietnamese coast guard officials say the fishing boat was rammed amid rising tensions
  • All 10 crew aboard the fishing boat were rescued by nearby vessels

(CNN) -- A Vietnamese fishing boat has sunk after colliding with a Chinese vessel near an island chain in the South China Sea at the center of a territorial dispute between the two Communist neighbors.

According to China's state-run Xinhua news agency, the Vietnamese vessel had been "harassing" a Chinese fishing boat at 5 p.m. local time on Monday in waters near the Paracel Islands, a largely uninhabited archipelago also known by the Chinese as the Xisha Islands.

However, Luu Tien Thang, a senior officer aboard a Vietnamese coast guard boat patrolling waters nearby, told CNN Tuesday the Vietnamese vessel reported that it had actually been rammed by the Chinese ship during a distress call.

While the Chinese vessel was purportedly a fishing boat, Luu said there were "usually Chinese military boats in the area with the fishing fleet."

Other Vietnamese fishing boats and coast guard ships picked up the 10 crew members aboard the Vietnamese vessel, Luu added.

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'Forcefully intruded'

Relations between China and Vietnam have soured in recent weeks after a state-owned Chinese oil company began drilling for oil some 17 nautical miles off the Paracels. Vietnamese officials say Chinese military and civilian ships have been harassing their vessels around the islands -- which are controlled by Beijing but claimed by Hanoi -- even accusing the Chinese of repeatedly ramming into them and shooting water cannon.

READ: How an oil rig sparked anti-China riots in Vietnam

China maintains that its current drilling activities are legitimate and blames the Vietnamese for provoking the conflict.

At a daily press briefing in Beijing Tuesday, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Qin Gang said the Vietnamese vessel had "forcefully intruded" into the area where its drilling rig was operating, then ran into the left side of a Chinese fishing boat before capsizing.

"I want to stress that the direct cause for this incident is that the Vietnamese side ... insisted on disturbing the normal operation by the Chinese side and took dangerous action on the sea," said Qin. "We once again urge the Vietnamese side to stop immediately all kinds of disruptive and damaging activities."

He said there is "no dispute concerning the sovereignty of the Xisha islands," and that they are Chinese territory.

"We hope the Vietnamese side will stop its disruptive actions and bear in mind the overall interests of the stability of the region. Only by doing so can the Vietnamese side uphold the overall interests of bilateral relationship," Qin added.

The spat recently spilled into violent anti-Chinese protests across Vietnam two weeks ago, prompting Beijing to evacuate thousands of its nationals. Recent video aired by Chinese state broadcaster CCTV showed some limping or being carried down the stairs of a medical flight arriving in the city of Chengdu, many with limbs bandaged. Two Chinese nationals were killed in earlier clashes, authorities said.

Vietnam characterized the protests as "spontaneous acts" by individuals who were exploiting the situation to "cause social disorder."

READ: What's behind China's territorial spats?

CNN's Euan McKirdy contributed to this report.

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