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MANILA - (UPDATE, 12 noon) The Chinese frigate that ran aground about 111 kilometers (about 60 nautical miles) off Palawan on July 11 has been "refloated successfully" and preparing to return to China, Chinese embassy spokesman Hua Zhang said in an email Sunday.
Citing the Information Department of the Ministry of National Defense of China, Hua Zhang said that at "around 5 a.m. of July 15, the grounded frigate near Nansha’s Half Moon Shoal was refloated successfully, with minor damage in the stem part."
"All the personnel aboard are safe. Now the preparation for return to the port is underway. No contamination has been caused in the incident area," the spokesman added, referring to Spratlys as Nansha and Hasa-Hasa Shoal as Half Moon Shoal.
The Hasa-Hasa Shoal is clearly within the country's exclusive economic zone, defined in international law as up to 200 nautical miles from its shores. And Spratlys is an area believed to be rich in mineral deposits.
The Chinese government admitted the naval ship was on "routine patrol" when it ran aground Wednesday evening. A Chinese military ship was not included among the four Chinese maritiime surveillance ships that Chinese state media Xinhua News Agency reported of going on "routine patrol" from July 1 to 8.
Apart from the Philippines and China, the Spratlys are being claimed in whole or in part by rival Taiwan and the other Southeast Asian countries of Brunei, Malaysia, and Vietnam.
Overlapping claims to the islands have perennially caused tensions among the claimants, with the Philippines and Vietnam recently accusing China of increasingly becoming aggressive in staking its claims.
The dispute also marred an annual meeting of Southeast Asian foreign ministers held in Cambodia last week, where Manila's chief diplomat Albert del Rosario accused China of "duplicity" and intimidation.
The dispute divided the ASEAN, with host Cambodia siding with China, thus preventing them from issuing a customary joint statement that summarises achievements and concerns.
With Veronica Uy, InterAksyon.com and Agence France-Presse