The Philippines has accused China’s coastguard of piracy in the disputed South China Sea after a violent confrontation in which it says its boats were rammed, punctured with knives and boarded by Chinese personnel.

One Filipino sailor lost a thumb in the incident, according to the Philippines military, which said Chinese personnel also destroyed communication equipment, seized personal mobile phones and took away unopened cases containing guns.

China has blamed the Philippines for the collision, which happened on Monday, and has said “no direct measures” were taken against Filipino personnel, adding that its coastguards “were professional and restrained”.

However, the Philippines military published a photo on Wednesday of what it said was a Chinese coastguard brandishing an axe at Filipino forces. Another photo showed smashed windshields and communications and navigational equipment on a Philippine navy boat.

The Philippine military released a photograph showing smashed windshields and communications and navigational equipment on a navy boat. Photograph: AP

It is the latest in a series of escalating confrontations between Chinese and Philippine ships in the fiercely contested South China Sea.

China claims almost 90% of the South China Sea – although an international tribunal in The Hague has rejected this. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan have overlapping claims.

The US state department spokesperson, Matthew Miller, said on Tuesday that the US condemned the “escalatory and irresponsible actions” by China, saying it “threatens regional peace and stability”. Miller also reaffirmed that the US-Philippines mutual defence treaty extends to “armed attacks on Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft – including those of its coastguard – anywhere in the South China Sea”.

Monday’s incident took place near Second Thomas Shoal, a submerged reef in the Spratly Islands, which is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. The Philippines had been attempting a resupply mission to the BRP Sierra Madre, second world war era ship, which serves as a military outpost in the shoal’s shallow waters and is a major flashpoint in the region.

Gen Romeo Brawner Jr, the chief of staff of the Philippines armed forces, said: “This is the first time that we saw Chinese coastguard brought bolo knives [a type of single-edged sword] and spears and knives,.” He likened the Chinese behaviour to “piracy”.

Filipino personnel had “fought back with our bare hands” after Chinese coastguard personnel from eight vessels boarded their rigid-hulled inflatable boats, he added.

Gen Romeo Brawner Jr, the chief of staff of the Philippines armed forces, said the Chinese coastguard brought spears and knives to the confrontation. Photograph: AP

“I want to clear the impression that our soldiers just let the Chinese coastguard get our equipment, destroy our boats. No, they didn’t let them. We fought back,” he said, but added that they were outnumbered. Guns carried on the Filipino boats“were disassembled and in gun cases” as they were being transported to BRP Sierra Madre and crew onboard were instructed not to display weapons to avoid “misperceptions”.

“They took guns and other equipment, destroyed our equipment onboard, including the motors. They punctured our rigid-hulled inflatable boats,” Brawner added.

Brawner said the Philippines demanded that China return their rifles and equipment and pay for damages caused. The military chief earlier visited a member of the Filipino naval special operations group who lost a thumb in the incident, awarding him with a wounded personnel medal. Philippine media reported at least eight sailors were wounded in the incident, though the navy has not confirmed this.

China’s foreign ministry spokesperson, Lin Jian, said the Philippines was attempting to send construction materials to the shoal, saying: “China coastguard took necessary control measures to stop the Philippine vessels in accordance with the law. The manoeuvres at the scene were professional, restrained, justified and lawful.”

There are concerns that as maritime confrontations escalate, there is a growing risk of a miscalculation that could inadvertently provoke conflict that draws in the US, an ally of the Philippines.

The Philippines president, Ferdinand Marcos Jr, has said that if any Filipino citizen is killed “by a wilful act”, it would be very close to “an act of war”.

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Guardian

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