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China Backs Off in Spratlys, Manila Says

CHINA has withdrawn seven of the nine ships it deployed around a coral reef claimed by the Philippines in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, military officials in Manila said yesterday.

But the situation remained a cause for concern because the two Chinese vessels still in the area of Mischief Reef are both warships, said the officials who asked not to be named.

Philippines armed forces chief Gen. Arturo Enrile told President Fidel Ramos the country would risk armed conflict if it tried physically to assert its claim over Mischief Reef, sources said.

The Philippines released photographs Thursday showing military-like Chinese vessels and substantial structures built on stilts above Mischief Reef, which is covered at high tide. China says it has built new facilities in the area, which it calls the Meijijiao, intended to ensure the safety of Chinese fishermen working in the area.

Manila says the reef is part of Kalayaan, a group of eight islands that it claims. Regarded as a potential Asian flashpoint, the Spratlys are a cluster of islands and reefs in the South China Sea claimed wholly or in part by seven nations.

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