China has stationed up to five ships around a disputed atoll in the South China Sea, preventing Filipino fishermen from accessing traditional fishing grounds, media in the Philippines reported on Wednesday.
The Philippine Star newspaper, quoting an unnamed Filipino fishing operator, said China began deploying ships to Quirino Atoll, also known as Jackson Atoll, after a fishing vessel recently ran aground in the area.
Eugenio Bito-onon Jr, the mayor of nearby Kalayaan in the Spratly Islands, told the newspaper the ships had been based at the atoll for more than a month. "They have many ships there," he said.
Another unnamed fisherman was quoted as saying Chinese boats chased them away when they tried to enter the area last week.
"These gray and white Chinese ships, around four of them inside the lagoon, prevented us from entering our traditional fishing ground," he said.
The Philippines military said they received reports about the presence of Chinese ships in the area.
"We are still verifying these reports," Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla, a Philippines military spokesman, told Reuters. "We know there are Chinese ships moving around the Spratly area. There are also ships around Second Thomas Shoal so we want to make sure if the presence is permanent.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea, believed to have huge deposits of oil and gas. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims on the waters, through which about $5 trillion in trade is shipped every year.
The Philippines is awaiting a ruling by an arbitration court in The Hague on the territorial dispute.
(Reporting by Manuel Mogato; Editing by Lincoln Feast)