September 30, 2016 - 6:00 AM
SEOUL, Korea, Republic Of - Three Chinese fishermen likely died from smoke inhalation after a fire erupted when South Korean coast guard officers threw "flashbang" grenades into their boat, which had been fishing illegally, officials said Friday.
The latest in a series of violent clashes between South Korea's coast guard and Chinese fishing boats venturing farther from their increasingly barren home waters occurred Thursday when a South Korean coast guard vessel tried to stop the Chinese boat from suspected illegal fishing about 70 kilometres (45 miles) from an island off South Korea's southwestern coast.
The vessel, which carried 17 fishermen, initially resisted and fled before South Korean coast guard officers managed to board the boat and threw flashbang grenades into its locked steering room, the coast guard said in a statement. Flashbang grenades are non-lethal devices that produce a blinding flash of light and loud sound.
A fire erupted on the boat and three fishermen found lying in the boat's engine room later died, the coast guard statement said.
Coast guard officers said the three likely died after inhaling toxic smoke but that autopsies were planned to find the exact cause of their deaths. Authorities will also investigate if the flashbang grenades caused the fire.
The 14 surviving fishermen were taken to a South Korean port for questioning, according to the coast guard.
Beijing's Foreign Ministry said Friday that China had asked for consultations on the incident and for assistance to the survivors and families of those killed.
"We have asked the South Korean side for an urgent dialogue on this matter, and we have urged a fair and thorough investigation to be conducted," Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said.
Earlier Friday, Seoul's Foreign Ministry expressed regret over the deaths, but noted the Chinese boat was fishing illegally and had tried to flee to avoid an inspection.
The incident came at a time when generally cordial relations between Beijing and Seoul have suffered a sharp downturn over South Korea's decision to deploy an advanced U.S. missile defence system that China says threatens its security.
Chinese fishing boats have been going farther afield to feed growing domestic demand for seafood as catches have decreased in waters close to China's shores.
Chinese boats have regularly had violent clashes with South Korea's coast guard, and in 2014, a South Korea coast guardsman fatally shot the captain of a Chinese fishing vessel who was violently resisting an inspection.
In 2012, a Chinese fisherman died after being hit by a rubber bullet fired by a South Korean guardsman. A year earlier, a South Korean coast guard officer was killed in a clash with Chinese fishermen.
Associated Press journalist Isolda Morillo in Beijing contributed to this report.
News from © The Associated Press, 2016