Malaysia Detains Chinese Ship Suspected of Plundering British Warship Wrecks

Malaysia Detains Chinese Ship Suspected of Plundering British Warship Wrecks
A Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency boat takes part in the rescue operation for missing sailors from the USS John S. McCain guided-missile destroyer off the Johor coast of Malaysia on Aug. 24, 2017. (Mohd Rasfan/AFP via Getty Images)
Aldgra Fredly

Malaysia's maritime agency has detained a Chinese ship and its crew members for illegal anchoring in its waters and found it was carrying a cannon shell believed to be from a British World War II-era warship wreck in the South China Sea.

The agency said the bulk carrier, which is registered in Fuzhou, China, was detained on May 28 for failing to show a permit to anchor in the waters of Malaysia's Johor state, The Star reported.

"Inspection of the vessel found 32 crew members consisting of 21 men from China, 10 men from Bangladesh, and one local man," Johor Maritime Director First Adm. Nurul Hizam Zakaria said on May 29.

The agency found the shell during an inspection of the ship, which may be related to a previous seizure by police of unexploded ordnance (UXO) at a private scrapyard in Johor, Zakaria stated.

"We believe the UXO is related to the HMS Prince of Wales case that was reported on May 19," he said.

The maritime agency will cooperate with the police and other relevant agencies to determine whether the shell came from the World War II vessel, Zakaria said.

The New Straits Times earlier reported that illegal salvage operators were caught looting steel from the wrecks of the HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse, which were sunk in 1941 by Japanese torpedoes.

A total of 842 sailors died in the 1941 attacks, and the shipwrecks off the Malaysian coast of Pahang state are designated as war graves.

Local fishermen and divers alerted authorities after spotting a foreign vessel near the area last month.

"Several days ago, I met a boat operator in Kuantan, who told me about the presence of the plundering at sea," professional diver Hazz Zain, who reported the case to authorities, told the New Straits Times on May 22.

Britain's National Museum of the Royal Navy stated last week that it was "distressed and concerned at the apparent vandalism for personal profit of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse."

"We are upset at the loss of naval heritage and the impact this has on the understanding of our Royal Navy history," the museum said in a statement on May 24.

"What we need is a management strategy for the underwater naval heritage to inform a national approach to the 5,000 or so naval wrecks."

Pictures and video footage released by the agency showed a barge with a large crane and heaps of rusty metal on board. Known as pre-war steel, the material from the two warships is valuable and could be smelted for use in the making of some scientific and medical equipment.

It isn't the first time that the two shipwrecks have been scavenged.

The New Straits Times reported that foreign treasure hunters used homemade explosives in 2015 to detonate the heavy steel plates on the ships for easy pickings. Other media said authorities detained a Vietnamese vessel involved in the looting of the wreckage at the time.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.