Vietnam accused a Chinese vessel of ramming and sinking a Vietnamese fishing boat in the disputed South China Sea, sharpening already dangerously high tensions between the two nations over their overlapping territorial claims in the waters.
The alleged incident occurred Monday around 30 kilometers (18 miles) south-southwest of large oil rig that China deployed on May 1 in a disputed section of the sea, according to Tran Van Linh, president of the Fisheries Association in the central port city of Danang and accounts in several state media.
The rig deployment infuriated Hanoi and set off violent anti-China protests that further soured ties between the neighboring communist countries with close economic relations.
Vietnam sent patrol ships to confront the rig, and China has deployed scores of vessels to protect it. The two sides have been involved in a tense standoff, occasionally colliding with each other.
"I call this an act of attempted murder because the Chinese sank a Vietnamese fishing boat and then ran away," Linh said by telephone from Danang. "We vehemently protest this perverse, brutal and inhumane action by Chinese side."
Chinese officials didn't immediately comment.
China and Vietnam have long sparred over who owns what in the oil- and gas-rich waters. Incidents between fishing crews are quite common, but Linh said Monday's reported incident was the first time China had sunk a Vietnamese boat.
Linh said about 40 Chinese steel vessels surrounded a group of smaller, wooden Vietnamese fishing ships on Monday afternoon. He said one then rammed into the Vietnamese ship, tossing 10 fishermen into the water and sinking the boat. The fishermen were picked by the other Vietnamese boats and there were no injuries.
The sunken fishing boat with its equipment and seafood catch was worth $240,000, and the association was demanding compensation, Linh said.
Since May 1, Vietnam has accused China of ramming into or firing water cannons at Vietnamese vessels trying to get close to the rig, damaging several boats and injuring fisheries surveillance officers. They have shown video footage of some of the incidents. China accuses Vietnam of doing the same.
China claims nearly all of the South China Sea as its own, bringing it into conflict with the far smaller nations of Vietnam, the Philippines and three others that have rival claims. In recent years it has been more assertive in pressing its claims in the waters and resisting attempts to negotiate.
The United States, which shares the concerns of the smaller claimant states about China's rising military might, called China's deployment of the rig "provocative." Vietnam is trying to rally regional and international support against Beijing, but its options are limited because China is the country's largest trading partner.