Abducted fishermen may have been released

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 May, 2012, 12:00am

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The owners of three mainland fishing boats seized by North Koreans said they were still unable to contact the kidnapped fishermen yesterday, although a Chinese diplomatic official in North Korea said some had been released and were on their way home.

Citing North Korean officials, Jiang Yaxian, counsellor at the Chinese embassy in Pyongyang, said all the men were in good health and had been given enough food and water.

But Jiang could not give an exact figure on how many of the men were released.

'The North Korean side says the detained Chinese fishing crew are in sound health with sufficient food and access to health care. Some of the detained vessels and crew have already been sent back to China,' Jiang said, according to a Xinhua report.

'Ambassador Liu Hongcai and other Chinese diplomats have been working actively on the detentions through negotiation and close contact to fully ensure the Chinese crew's personal safety and their legitimate rights and interests.'

The three fishing boats were seized by unknown people in two North Korean gunboats on May 8 in the Yellow Sea, between China and North Korea, The Beijing News reported.

Zhang Dechang , owner of the Liaodan 23536, said he and the other boat owners had not had contact with their crew over the past four days, even after state media reported on Friday night that some of the fishermen had been freed. 'I haven't received any calls from the captain or sailors. Their mobile phones were all switched off,' Zhang said.

'I saw television news reports that some had been released, but I can't confirm this with you.'

The hostage-takers had demanded the owners each pay 300,000 yuan (HK$368,350) by Thursday to secure the release of the boats and crew. Zhang said he had not paid any ransom.

The hostage-takers had previously threatened to kill the sailors, aged between 21 and 48, if their ransom demand was not met.

Sun Caihui , the owner of the Liaodan 23979 boat, said earlier: 'They are quite skilful as they used different numbers to call us every time. We suspect some Chinese with triad backgrounds were involved in it, but we don't have further evidence.'

Zhang had earlier said the ship owners suspected triad involvement: 'My captain, Han Qiang , told us that some Chinese took part in the kidnapping.' Zhang said he spoke to Han on Tuesday by satellite phone.

The ship owners said the satellite navigation system on board suggested the boats were in Chinese waters at the time of the incident.

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The number of fishermen kidnapped when three mainland fishing boats were seized by North Koreans in the Yellow Sea on May 8