KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Malaysia’s maritime agency said Tuesday a Chinese barge likely plundered two World War II British shipwrecks in the South China Sea after discovering 100 more old artillery shells on the detained vessel.
Malaysian media reported that illegal salvage operators are believed to have targeted the HMS Repulse and the HMS Prince of Wales, which were sunk in 1941 by Japanese torpedoes days after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
A total of 842 sailors perished, and the shipwrecks off the coast of Malaysia’s central Pahang state are designated war graves. Fishermen and divers alerted authorities after spotting a foreign vessel near the area last month.
The maritime agency detained the barge, registered in Fuzhou, China, on Sunday for anchoring without a permit off southern Johor state. Upon investigation, the agency found piles of scrap metal and an artillery shell believed to be from World War II on the vessel.
The agency said a thorough search Tuesday found 100 more artillery shells of various sizes on the Chinese vessel. It said the shells were taken by the police bomb disposal unit to be detonated.
It said it “does not rule out the possibility that the vessel … is the same ship that plundered the British warships.”
Britain’s National Museum of the Royal Navy said last week it was “distressed and concerned at the apparent vandalism for personal profit.” Known as prewar steel, the material from the two warships is valuable and could be smelted for use in manufacturing of sensitive scientific and medical equipment.
The maritime agency said it believes the artillery shells are linked to the police seizure of dozens of artillery shells and other relics at a scrapyard in Johor earlier this month. The New Straits Times newspaper said the shells are believed to be from the warships and that police conducted on-site controlled detonations of them.
The agency said there were 32 crew members aboard the barge — 21 Chinese, 10 Bangladeshis and a Malaysian.
In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning told reporters that the government has asked Malaysia to “handle the case fairly in accordance with law.” She said Chinese citizens’ safety and legitimate rights and interests must be protected and urged Malaysia to notify Beijing of the progress of the investigation.
It is not the first time the two shipwrecks have been targeted.
The New Straits Times reported that foreign treasure hunters used homemade explosives in 2015 to break the heavy steel plates on the ships for easy plundering. Other media said authorities detained a Vietnamese vessel involved in looting the wreckage at the time.