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(LEAD) Chinese ships shunning waters near Korea amid tensions

All Headlines 10:00 May 29, 2009

(ATTN: UPDATES with additional details)

SEOUL, May 29 (Yonhap) -- Chinese fishing vessels are leaving the Yellow Sea, where tensions between the two Koreas have escalated after Pyongyang's threats of military clash, a defense source here said Friday.

"Chinese fishing ships operating near the Northern Limit Line (NLL) began withdrawing yesterday," the source said, adding the military authorities are trying to find out whether North Korea asked them to do so.

More than 280 Chinese vessels were fishing near the NLL for crab earlier this week but the number has dropped to about 140, according to the source.

Tensions are running high around the de-facto inter-Korean maritime border following North Korea's warning Tuesday of military action that came after South Korea announced its full participation in the Proliferation Security Initiative, a U.S.-led campaign to stop the trade of weapons of mass destruction and related materials.

There were two deadly skirmishes between the two sides near the sea border, in 1999 and 2002.

An official at Seoul's presidential office Cheong Wa Dae, however, said the withdrawal did not appear to be a sign of an imminent provocation.

"All Chinese ships would have evacuated the area if that was the case," the official said, adding the crab-catching season was almost over.

"The government is closely following developments in the West Sea (Yellow Sea), but there are no imminent signs of hostilities," said the official, who spoke on customary condition of anonymity.

The two Koreas technically remain at war as the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty. North Korea has said that it will no longer be bound by the armistice.



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