(Update) Three foreign vessels and two small boats have been spotted at the Panatag Shoal (international name: Scarborough Shoal) as a motorized yacht commissioned by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines left the area, a military commander said.

Three new foreign “vessels” have been sighted at the shoal Wednesday afternoon, Lt. Gen. Anthony Alcantara, chief of the Armed Forces’ Northern Luzon Command, said in a phone interview.

“Wala akong specific kung nasa loob o nasa labas ng lagoon… pero hindi Filipino vessels ‘yun,” he said.

Two small fishing boats with outriggers were also reportedly sighted inside and outside the horseshoe-shaped shoal, but Alcantara said they do not know to which country these belong to.

Archaeologists leave

Coinciding with the new vessels’ sighting, the M/Y Sarangani left Panatag Shoal Wednesday afternoon and was expected to return to Manila Thursday.

“Baka magre-refuel na rin ‘yun, saka tapos na ‘yung trabaho nila,” Alcantara said, when asked if the Sarangani’s departure was related to any demand by China for Filipinos to leave the area.

The M/Y Sarangani, manned by nine French nationals, three personnel of the National Museum, and six crewmembers, was commissioned by the NHCP to conduct archaeological surveys at the shoal.

On Saturday, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said a Chinese white ship “harassed” the Sarangani.

Alcantara said he knew nothing of that incident, except that the Sarangani had been in Panatag even before the standoff between the Philippines and China started on April 10.

Fishermen avoid shoal

Meanwhile, Mayor Desiree Edora of Masinloc, Zambales, the town nearest to the shoal, said local fishermen have not been going to Panatag Shoal recently to avoid getting caught in a possible confrontation between Philippine and Chinese forces.

“‘Yung mga fishermen namin dun, na-interview ng secretary ko, medyo matagal-tagal na silang di napupunta dun dahil natatakot, kasi baka daw magkaroon ng bakbakan,” Edora said in an interview with DZMM radio.

Masinloc considers Panatag Shoal as its territory and has been calling it Bajo de Masinloc (literally, “under Masinloc”) since the Spanish colonial period.

The Coast Guard’s search and rescue vessel BRP Edsa Dos, which has been in Panatag since replacing BRP Pampanga last week, remains in a “standoff” with two Chinese maritime surveillance vessels at the shoal.

“It (BRP Edsa Dos) is continuing its mission, to take care of our interest in Scarborough Shoal, walang pagbabago dun… and then to protect our fishermen, Filipino nationals, if need be,” Alcantara said. (John Roson)

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