Eighteen Hainan fishermen were rescued by Malaysian police after pirates robbed them on Thursday and left them floating in the South China Sea for several hours, Hainan police said yesterday. Wang Weihao, director of Tanmen police station in Qionghai city, said all the fishermen were safe, but their fishing vessel had sunk. 'They were rescued by Malaysian marine police near Sabah on Thursday afternoon after floating for several hours,' Mr Wang said. 'I only know they were loaded into two lifeboats when discovered by the police, while their boat was reported to have sunk.' The Tanmen police station received a call from Xu Defu, a cousin of fishing boat captain Xu Demin , at dawn on Thursday saying the vessel, the Qiongqionghai 08099, had been robbed by pirates twice in the South China Sea. Mr Wang said he then reported the case to higher departments and sought help from authorities in the Philippines and Malaysia. 'We are negotiating with Malaysian police about the repatriation of the fishermen as soon as possible,' Mr Wang said. 'Of course, we would also request them to help us to investigate the robbery.' The vessel was first robbed on Thursday after it broke down because of mechanical problems near the Spratly Islands, which are claimed entirely or in part by the mainland, Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines. Xinhua said that the captain called his family after the first robbery and 20 minutes later as he made a phone call to his cousin after the vessel had been robbed by another gang of pirates. All of their catch and some lifeboats were taken during the two robberies. The Qiongqionghai 08099 is a 24.6-metre, 88-tonne wooden fishing boat. The boat has a 304-horsepower engine. It set sail from Tanmen on March 16, heading towards the Spratly Islands for fishing, Xinhua said. The agency said that at least 96 fishing vessels from the Tanmen region had reportedly been robbed since 2002, causing four deaths and five injuries.