MANILA, Philippines — The last five Chinese fishing boats at the center of a dangerous impasse between China and the Philippines have left a disputed shoal in the South China Sea, diffusing the standoff, officials said Saturday.
Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez confirmed the boats' departure late Friday from Scarborough Shoal, off the northwestern Philippines.
He said Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario and Chinese Ambassador Ma Keqing were continuing to talk to find a permanent solution to the Scarborough issue. Both sides claim the uninhabited, horseshoe-shaped shoal, which lies 230 kilometers (124 nautical miles) from Zambales province, the nearest Philippine coast.
The impasse began Tuesday when Chinese ships prevented the Philippine navy from detaining Chinese fishermen allegedly caught poaching endangered corals, giant clams and live sharks.
There were initially eight Chinese fishing boats seen in the area, but the number increased to 12 at one point, said Lt. Gen. Anthony Alcantara, the regional military commander.
The other boats pulled out earlier. The five remaining vessels left Friday night along with a Chinese fisheries law enforcement ship following talks between the two countries' diplomats, he said.
A Chinese maritime survey ship and a Philippine coast guard vessel remain in the area, where there are also Filipino fishing boats present, Alcantara said.
He said the Chinese boats apparently left with their catch, which Philippine authorities earlier wanted to confiscate in accordance with local law.
The impasse has reignited concerns about potential conflict in the South China Sea, one of the world's busiest seas lanes and home to a myriad of competing territorial claims, most notably the Spratly Islands, which are south of the shoal.
The disputes have settled into an uneasy standoff since the last major clash, which involved China and Vietnam and killed more than 70 Vietnamese sailors in 1988.