MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Chinese navy ships safely removed one of the country's warships Sunday from a disputed shoal off the western Philippines where it had run aground while on a security patrol and sparked fears of another maritime standoff in the South China Sea.
The warship will sail back to port with minor damage, and no crew member was injured, Chinese Embassy spokesman Zhang Hua said in a statement that suggested the vessel did not spill any oil.
The frigate got stuck Wednesday night on Half Moon Shoal, about 110 kilometers (70 miles) from the western Philippine province of Palawan, prompting China and the Philippines to send rescue ships there. Both countries were already locked in a tense dispute over another shoal off the northwestern Philippines.
The South China Sea is a flashpoint in diplomatic relations, with various Asian nations claiming whole or part of its islands and waters.
Philippine navy chief Vice Admiral Alexander Pama said at least six Chinese navy ships and vessels, along with smaller utility boats, helped refloat the stalled frigate. Filipino coast guard search and rescue vessels had been deployed near the scene to help if needed, he said.
The Department of Foreign Affairs in Manila said Saturday the Philippines was investigating the circumstances that led to the accident. The Philippine government on Sunday expressed relief that the delicate incident was over.
"We are glad to note that Chinese authorities have successfully extricated their stranded frigate" and will now return to China from the Philippines' exclusive economic zone and continental shelf, Philippine foreign affairs department spokesman Raul Hernandez said, referring to his country's 370-kilometer (230-mile) stretch of territorial waters recognized under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The Chinese frigate had apparently been sailing in Malaysian and Philippine waters before the accident, according to a Philippine military official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Brig. Gen. Elmer Amon, deputy chief of the Philippine military's Western Command, said Filipino vessels would continue to monitor the shoal amid the continuing presence of Chinese navy ships in the area.
The shoal where the warship ran aground is called Hasa Hasa by the Philippines and claimed by China as part of the Nansha island chain, known internationally as the Spratlys. The Spratly islands are a major cluster of potentially oil- and gas-rich islands and reefs long disputed by China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei.
Chinese and Philippine officials are still negotiating an end to a tense maritime dispute over the Scarborough Shoal, about 700 kilometers (400 miles) away, which has been going on for more than three months. The Philippines has withdrawn its ships from Scarborough to ease tensions, but Chinese government surveillance ships have remained in the area.
Associated Press writers Oliver Teves in Manila and Christopher Bodeen in Beijing contributed to this report.