Malaysia’s maritime agency has detained a Chinese barge carrier for illegal anchoring and found it was carrying a cannon shell believed to be from British warship wrecks in the South China Sea.
The agency said the ship was registered in Fuzhou, China, and it was detained at around 12:45 p.m. local time on Sunday for failing to show a permit to anchor in the waters of Johor state, Malaysia, The Star reported.
“Inspection of the vessel found 32 crew members consisting of 21 men from China, 10 men from Bangladesh, and one local man,” Johor Maritime Director First Adm. Nurul Hizam Zakaria said on Monday.
The agency found a cannon shell during the inspection of the ship, which is believed to be related to a previous seizure by police of unexploded ordnance (UXO) at a private scrapyard in Johor, Zakaria stated.
“We believe the UXO is related to the HMS Prince of Wales case that was reported on May 19,” he said.
Zakaria said the maritime agency will cooperate with the police and other relevant agencies to ascertain whether the shell belongs to the World War II vessel.
The New Straits Times earlier reported that illegal salvage operators were caught looting steel from the wrecks of the HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse, which were sunk in 1941 by Japanese torpedoes.
A total of 842 sailors perished in the 1941 attack, and the shipwrecks off the Malaysian coast of Pahang state are designated war graves.
Local fishermen and divers alerted authorities after spotting a foreign vessel near the area last month.
“Several days ago, I met a boat operator in Kuantan, who told me about the presence of the plundering at sea,” professional diver Hazz Zain, who reported the case to authorities, told the New Straits Times on May 22.
Britain’s National Museum of the Royal Navy stated last week that it was “distressed and concerned at the apparent vandalism for personal profit of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse.”
“We are upset at the loss of naval heritage and the impact this has on the understanding of our Royal Navy history,” the museum said in a statement on May 24.
“What we need is a management strategy for the underwater naval heritage to inform a national approach to the 5,000 or so naval wrecks,” it added.
Pictures and a video released by the agency showed a barge carrier with a large crane and heaps of rusty metal on board. Known as pre-war steel, the material from the two warships is valuable and could be smelted for use in manufacturing of some scientific and medical equipment.
It is not the first time that the two shipwrecks have been targeted.
The New Straits Times reported that foreign treasure hunters used homemade explosives in 2015 to detonate the heavy steel plates on the ships for easy pickings. Other media said authorities detained a Vietnamese vessel involved in the looting of the wreckage at the time.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.