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China questions Russia on sea attack that sank cargo vessel

CHINESE diplomats last night were trying to sort out what caused a Russian patrol boat to fire on a cargo vessel containing Chinese crewmen, sinking the freighter and leaving five dead and three missing in the icy waters of the Sea of Japan.

China's Foreign Ministry and the country's diplomatic corps in Russia urged their Russian counterparts to search for the missing sailors and provide a full explanation of what happened. Media reports said Russia's border guards fired at least 500 shots into the ship and sank it in the seas off the Russian port of Vladivostok.

A video of the incident captured muzzle flashes, and the sounds of gunfire could be heard on the audio track.

The cargo ship New Star had 10 Chinese and six Indonesians on board when it went down on Sunday. Eight sailors were rescued, and seven Chinese were among the number originally reported missing.

It was not clear whether any of the men who were confirmed dead were Chinese.

The conflict apparently began when the New Star, a Sierra Leone-flagged vessel owned by Tongyu Shipping Zhejiang and leased to Hong Kong-based J-Rui Lucky Shipping Co Ltd, was held at the Russian port of Nakhodka earlier this month due to a shipping dispute.

The Russian importers claimed that the nearly 5,000 tons of bagged rice brought in by the vessel were substandard and demanded US$330,000 in compensation, the ship owner said.

However, Russian border guards later charged the crew was suspected of smuggling, which the owner denied.

The rice was eventually off-loaded, but Russian customs agents refused to clear the vessel to leave.

The New Star captain then decided to set out on February 12 after receiving an order from J-Rui, according to the ship owner.

Russian border guards reportedly dispatched patrol boats to give chase the next day and began shooting at the vessel in international waters with heavy machine guns and cannons.

New Star's sailors said the shooting lasted several hours and caused hull damage that finally sent the ship under.

Russia's Kommersant business daily reported yesterday that eight sailors, including the captain, who were on a closed raft, were lifted on board one of the patrol ships within 30 minutes. The eight other sailors, who were on an open raft, were doomed, an investigator said.


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