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Alleged warship graverobbers detained in Malaysia

The Malaysia Maritime Enforcement Agency has detained a Chinese cargo ship believed to have stolen ammunition and steel from World War II warship wrecks.

The Malaysia Maritime Enforcement Agency has detained a Chinese cargo ship believed to have stolen ammunition and steel from World War II warship wrecks.

The Malaysian maritime agency announced they had found approximately 100 active rounds of World War II ammunition after detaining a cargo ship registered from Fuzhou, China, around 20.1 nautical miles east of Tanjung Siang on 28 May.

The operation was conducted in cooperation with the Royal Malaysian Police, the Department of National Heritage, and the Marine Department Malaysia.

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State maritime director of Johor, First Admiral Nurul Hizam bin Zakaria said the operation involved Malaysian maritime assets, Malaysian maritime officers, the Johor IPK Bomb Disposal unit, members of the Heritage Department and Malaysian Marine Department.

All the bullets of various sizes that were found were taken and brought by the PDRM Bomb Disposal Unit to be destroyed. A further report related to this discovery will be issued by the PDRM, he said.

The Malaysian maritime agency did not rule out the possibility that the ship is the same one involved in the theft of British warship wrecks in Pahang waters.

The People’s Republic of China Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning said the Chinese government is aware of the detainment.

“The Chinese Embassy in Malaysia is in close communication with Malaysia to learn relevant information and ask the Malaysian side to handle the case justly in accordance with the law, earnestly protect the security and lawful rights and interests of Chinese citizens and report the progress of the investigation in a timely manner,” she said in a regular press conference on 30 May.

Morally questionable salvage allegations surfaced earlier this year when the Fujian Ya Rui Marine-registered salvage ship, Chuan 68, was reportedly found dredging over the shipwrecks of battleship HMS Prince of Wales and battle cruiser HMS Repulse off the coast of Malaysia.

The HMS Repluse and HMAS Prince of Wales were sunk by Japanese bombers in 1941, losing 842 crew members and are both officially designated as war graves.

The Chinese salvage ship has also previously been accused of similar operations over three Japanese World War II shipwrecks near Uskan, Malaysia, in 2017 and of targeting other warship wrecks in Singaporean, Cambodian, and Vietnamese waters.

The National Museum of the Royal Navy released a statement regarding the HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse on 24 May.

National Museum of the Royal Navy director general Professor Dominic Tweddle said the museum is upset at the loss of naval heritage and the impact this has on the understanding of Royal Navy history.

“We are distressed and concerned at the apparent vandalism for personal profit of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse. They are designated war graves,” he said.

“What we need is a management strategy for the underwater naval heritage so that we can better protect or commemorate these ships. That may include targeted retrieval of objects.

“We want the Royal Navy to develop a policy we can help deliver. If resourced correctly, the existing Royal Navy loss list can be enhanced to be a vital tool to begin to understand, research and manage over 5,000 wrecks before they are lost forever. 

“A strategy is vital to determine how to assess and manage these wrecks in the most efficient and effective manner. Above all, we must remember the crews who served on these lost ships, and all too often gave their lives in the service of their country.”

World War II shipwrecks are targeted because of their “pre-war steel”, which has low radiation and can be smelted down into medical and scientific equipment.

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