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Philippines verifying if Chinese ships left disputed shoal

MANILA — The Philippine defense chief said Friday authorities are trying to verify a report that Chinese coast guard ships have left a disputed shoal, allowing Filipino fishermen to sail back to the rich fishing area that China seized in 2012.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the Philippine coast guard has reported that Chinese coast guard ships have not been sighted at Scarborough Shoal in the last three days, but he added the report has yet to be validated.

Lorenzana said the Philippine air force plans to conduct aerial surveillance of the shoal off the northwestern Philippines as early as Saturday to check the situation.

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China took effective control of Scarborough in 2012 after a tense standoff with Philippine vessels. Since then, Chinese coast guard ships have been driving Filipino fishermen away from the area.

A year after China took control of Scarborough, then-President Benigno Aquino III took the issue to international arbitration. In July, a tribunal ruled that China had violated Filipinos’ right to fish in their traditional fishing grounds. It also invalidated Beijing’s sweeping territorial claims in the South China Sea. China ignored the ruling and its coast guard continued to block Filipino fishermen.

Current Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has attempted to improve relations with China. After visiting Beijing last week, he said without elaborating that Filipino fishermen ‘‘may’’ be able to return to Scarborough after he discussed the territorial rift with Chinese leaders.

He said he insisted in his talks with Chinese leaders that the shoal belonged to the Philippines but that the Chinese also asserted their claim of ownership.