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MANILA, Philippines – A Chinese Navy frigate on Sunday, April 19, ordered a Philippine Air Force (PAF) on patrol in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) to stay away from the Chinese-occupied Subi (Zamora) Reef, according to the military.
A well-placed Rappler source in the military said the Chinese frigate reportedly fired a flare – a blaze of light used to send a warning – at a Philippine Air Force (PAF) Fokker plane flying near Subi Reef.
He said the frigate was calling out the Philippine plane for getting “a little too close” to its location. The Fokker plane immediately vacated the area and aborted the patrol mission to avoid conflict, he said, citing an intelligence report.
Armed Forces spokesperson Brigadier General Joselito Kakilala downplayed the incident. He said the Chinese frigate only blinked its lights to order the Philippine plane away.
“They were conducting maritime patrol over Pag-Asa and was passing through Subi Reef when the Chinese frigate blinked its lights,” Kakilala told Rappler Thursday evening.
Former Interior Secretary Rafael Alunan III, a co-convenor of the West Philippine Sea Coalition, spoke of the Sunday incident in his Facebook page. He said it’s a “provocative” act from China and the military should respond.
Citing a “friend” in Pag-Asa, Alunan said: “There was a near disastrous incident between a Chinese frigate and a PAF patrol aircraft early Monday. The frigate fired an illumination round on the PAF aircraft which necessitated grounding all military flights into the WPS!”
He added: “Firing that illumination round was provocative. If we can’t retaliate at sea, hit them back on land!”
China’s radio messages
The Fokker plane was at an altitude of 5,000 feet when it received the first radio message from the Chinese frigate, according to the reliable source.
It said: “Foreign airplane, you are approaching my military security area. Please go away quickly in order to avoid misjudgment.”
The Philippine plane replied: “This is Philippine aircraft performing normal maritime patrol mission and will proceed south of your area, over.”
The Philippine plane moved away from Subi Reef but the Chinese were not satisfied. A second radio message was sent before one of the Filipinos saw the “bright warning flashlight coming from one of the vessels inside the lagoon.”
The Philippine team aborted the mission and left the area immediately.
The source said it was the first time for such an encounter to take place.
No gunfire in South China Sea
It was a separate report of supposed gunfire in the South China Sea that prompted the Philippine military to issue an official statement Thursday afternoon.
“We strongly deny that any of our military planes was fired upon by a Chinese vessel while flying to Pag-asa to pick a patient. Firing incident in the West Philippine Sea is a serious matter that must not be subject to malicious rumors,” Kakilala said in a text message.
The report appeared in the Twitter account of state-run PTV-4. It tweeted Thursday noon, April 23, to report the supposed harassment of a civilian medical evacuation flight.
DEVELOPING: Military is still investigating the report.— People’s Television (@PTVph) April 23, 2015
Later, its defense reporter announced on air that the military was denying the supposed gunfire. She briefly spoke of the Sunday incident echoing the AFP spokesperson’s narration. China may only have flashed its search lights on the patrolling Philippine plane, she said.
At the time, the defense reporter was with the military top brass in Albay province to celebrate what it declared a successful anti-insurgency campaign.
The Philippine military’s statements came later.
The military, however, confirmed the medical evacuation mission on Thursday. A certain Chito Pastor, who was in Pag-Asa to set up amateur radio operations, was evacuated by a private plane to Puerto Princesa to get medical care. He developed serious kidney trouble while he was in the remote island.
Contrary to the initial PTV report, the military said there was no untoward incident that happened on Thursday.
“There was a scheduled medical evacuation of a civilian patient from Pag-Asa Island today using Nomad, but the plane couldn’t land because of bad weather so a Piper 30 civilian plane was used instead. The patient, Chito Pastor, was successfully evacuated to Palawan and arrived 1330H this afternoon,” said Kakilala.
The Rappler source said Pastor should have been evacuated on Monday, April 20, but the Sunday incident prompted the Palawan-based Western Command (Westcom) to put it on hold.
The medical evacuation was then reportedly set on Tuesday, April 21, but the Philippine Navy plane that was supposed to evacuate him experienced mechanical trouble.
A private plane was eventually used on Thursday, April 23, to bring Pastor to Puerto Princesa. – Rappler.com