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Sunday, 23 December, 2001, 06:44 GMT
Japan searches for boat crew
Japanese coast guard boat chasing the unidentified boat in the East China Sea
A large flotilla chased the unidentified boat
A search is under way for the missing crew of a boat sunk by Japanese coastguards in the East China Sea on Saturday.

The bodies of at least two people were spotted by a Japanese patrol plane and one of them was recovered by a patrol boat early on Sunday, a spokesman said.

About 15 crewmen were seen in the water after the boat sank, but the Japanese coastguards said they had lost track of them in high seas.


The incident began on Friday, when the boat, suspected to be a North Korean spy or smugglers' ship, was first spotted inside an area where Japan has exclusive fishing rights to the south of the country.

The search involved 12 patrol boats and 13 planes from the coastguard as well as two destroyers and a patrol plane from the Japanese Navy.

One coastguard official told a news conference that Korean hangul characters were written on the life jacket of the body that was recovered.

He said the coastguard failed to retrieve the other body because its life jacket had slipped off.

Unwelcome visitor

After spotting the vessel north-west of Amami Oshima Island early on Saturday, a flotilla of 20 Japanese ships had given chase, said coastguard spokeswoman Miki Sakamoto.

The vessel had been fired on after failing to heed warning shots and an order to stop.

A fire which broke out on board was apparently extinguished.

The vessel was said to look like a fishing boat and was fleeing in the direction of China.

Precedents

This was the first such incident since March 1999, when the Japanese coastguard was involved in a high-speed chase with what it described as North Korean spy vessels.

Correspondents say Japan has become sensitive about intrusions into its exclusive economic zone since the incident, when Japanese warplanes and destroyers opened fire for the first time since World War II on two suspected North Korean spy boats.

North Korea denied any involvement.

Last year, Japan and China were involved in a row after a series of incidents in which alleged Chinese spy vessels entered Japan's waters without notice.

Since then, the Japanese coastguard has deployed high-speed boats carrying 20mm machine guns and sophisticated search-and-surveillance technology, including night vision.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Charles Scanlon
"The incident shows how vigilant Japan has become"
See also:

22 Dec 01 | Asia-Pacific
Japan fires on 'intruding' boat
26 Mar 99 | Asia-Pacific
North Korea denies 'spy ship' charge
01 Dec 97 | From Our Own Correspondent
Japan and Russia try to make up over four windy islands
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