China ships evacuate Vietnam workers after protests

Martin Patience reports on the evacuation of 2,000 Chinese workers from Vietnam

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Two of four ships evacuating Chinese workers from Vietnam are now returning home, Chinese state media say, after protests over a territorial dispute.

More than 900 people boarded each ship at the Vietnamese port of Vung Ang following anti-China violence triggered by a row over the South China Sea.

Last week, two Chinese nationals died and dozens more were hurt in a protest at a Taiwan-owned steel mill.

The Vietnamese government has since moved to stifle the protests.

The ships were sent to evacuate some 3,000 Chinese workers from the Taiwan-owned Formosa Steel mill in Ha Tinh, central Vietnam, where violence broke out on Wednesday and Thursday.

The Vietnamese protesters are angry at China's decision to move a drilling rig into disputed waters.

The rig was placed earlier this month in seas west of the Paracel islands, which both Beijing and Hanoi claim. Ships from the two sides have collided in the rig area on multiple occasions as Vietnam seeks to block the move.

Last week's violence was the worst unrest seen in Vietnam for several years, says the BBC's Martin Patience in Beijing.

'Sabotaged atmosphere'

The violence erupted last week, first at industrial parks in southern Vietnam, where at least 15 foreign-owned factories were set on fire.

Vietnamese firefighters work at a burning Taiwanese factory in Binh Duong province. Photo: 14 May 2014 At least 15 foreign-owned factories were set on fire in two industrial parks in Vietnam last week

A mob later stormed the Taiwan-owned steel mill and reportedly targeted Chinese workers there, killing two and injuring dozens more.

There has been no more violence since Thursday, however. Over the weekend there was a heavy police presence on the streets of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh, and security personnel made multiple arrests in a bid to subdue protests.

Some experts have suggested that the Chinese dispatch of boats to pick up its nationals is partly aimed at a domestic audience.

China, which has strong economic ties with Vietnam, said it was suspending some bilateral exchanges with the South East Asian nation.

"The severe violence targeting foreign companies in Vietnam since 13 May has caused casualties and property losses for Chinese nationals," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said on Sunday.

"This sabotaged the atmosphere and conditions for bilateral communication and co-operation."

China has taken an increasingly assertive stance on its claims in the South China Sea in recent years, causing ties with regional neighbours to deteriorate.

In particular, relations with Vietnam and the Philippines - which is taking Beijing to a UN court - have been badly hit.

The move to deploy the drilling rig has been has been denounced by the US as provocative.

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