Malaysian authorities suspect the crew of a Chinese freighter of looting two British wrecks dating from the Second World War, the "Prince of Wales" and the "Repulse", sunk by Japan on December 10, 1941, just days after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
More than 800 people perished in the sinking of these two warships. The Malaysian coast guard discovered intact shells and pieces of metal on board the Chinese-registered boat in late May, seized for illegal anchoring, said the head of the maritime surveillance agency of the Malaysian state of Johor.
"Our investigation aims to identify where these shells came from. We now have several employees from different agencies searching the boat," he said. The official said the boat from the Chinese city of Fuzhou had a crew of 32 sailors, including 21 Chinese, 10 Bangladeshis and one Malaysian.
Jessica Berry, chief executive of MAST, a charity that preserves Britain's underwater archaeological heritage, was alerted to possible looting by a Malaysian diver. "We used satellite technology from the British Maritime Observatory to track the cargo ship suspected of looting."
After observing satellite images on several occasions, the team of archaeologists claims that the Chinese cargo ship would have spent about fifty days on the site of the wreck of the "Prince of Wales". "Later, the cargo ship was located unloading its contents in a scrap yard. Our analyses seem to indicate a recovery campaign on the "Prince of Wales" (...) He spent enough time on the wreckage to do enough damage, including releasing an oil slick," Berry said.
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Coast guard footage shows rusty pieces of metal, shells, as well as a large crane and tools for cutting metal, on board the boat. The Malaysian daily New Straits Times reported that aluminum or brass equipment from British wrecks was targeted by looters. "The value of scrap metal and steel is very high right now," says Jessica Berry, "and we have estimated between $4 million and $10 million" for the items looted by the freighter.
The head of the maritime surveillance agency of the Malaysian state of Johor stressed that the Malaysian authorities will not tolerate any illegal activity in their maritime area. "Our national treasures must be protected and preserved," he said, calling looting "an uncivilized act."
Britain's defence minister has condemned the "desacralisation" of wartime military graves following reports of looting of the two wrecks, the BBC reported.