The Sierra Madre, formerly the USS Harnett County, ran aground off Second Thomas Shoal in 1999 and has since served as a military outpost. (Internet photo)
On a successful mission to provide supplies to the country's marines stationed on the Sierra Madre, a World War II-era tank-landing ship beached near Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea, sailors of the Philippine Navy gave the victory sign to Chinese coast guard vessels, according to Taiwan's Central News Agency.
When the Philippine fishing boat carrying foods and fresh troops for marines aboard the outpost in the disputed Spratly islands, reporters from Reuters, Agence France-Presse, the Associated Press and other international media outlets were invited on board another vessel to cover the event. An AFP report said four Chinese coast guard vessels were ordered to intercept the approaching Philippine fishing boat on Mar. 29. On Mar. 9, two Philippine supply vessels had earlier been driven away by the Chinese vessels attempting to break their blockade.
Beijing says the Sierra Madre was grounded intentionally by the Philippines on the disputed reef in 1999 to form an outpost to assert its territorial claim. A detachment of around eight marines has been stationed aboard the beached ship for three months in harsh conditions, Reuters reported. Due to the Chinese blockade, the Philippine government had to mobilize aircraft to drop supplies to the men.
"If we didn't change direction, if we didn't change course, then we would have collided with them," said Ferdinand Gato, captain of the Philippine fishing boat, after his boat had anchored on the shoal to supply the isolated marines. Reuters said the Philippine vessel was spotted by the Chinese coast guard vessel about an hour away from Second Thomas Shoal. A warning message was then sent to the Philippine boat by the Chinese side.
A radio message in English from the Chinese vessel said, "We order you to stop immediately, stop all illegal activities and leave." At the same time, Philippine troops wearing civilian clothing, along with journalists, then flashed the V for victory sign at the Chinese coast guard, according to Reuters. Gato did not stop or reverse but picked up speed and eventually maneuvered away from the Chinese after a two-hour chase.
The Spratlys, the largest group of islands in the resource-rich South China Sea, is also the archipelago with the greatest number of claimants. China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei claim the islands in whole or in part.