Chinese fishermen and boats held in North Korea 'freed'

Yellow Sea

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The 29 Chinese fishermen and three boats seized in the Yellow Sea by unidentified North Koreans have been released back to China, reports say.

The North Korean foreign ministry notified the Chinese embassy in Pyongyang on Sunday that the men were free, said Xinhua news agency.

They arrived in the northeast port city of Dalian on Monday, it said.

The group were seized on 8 May in the Yellow Sea, which lies between China and North Korea.

The men were in "sound health condition with sufficient food and healthcare", Jiang Yaxian, a counsellor at the Chinese embassy in Pyongyang, told Xinhua news agency.

The captors had asked for payment in return for the release of the men and boats, Chinese media reported, but Xinhua's report did not say whether payment had been made.

It remains unclear if the boats were seized by North Korean authorities or kidnappers, as some reports have suggested.

'Close contact'

The owners of the boats were reported as saying that the men were fishing in Chinese waters when the incident took place.

One of the owners, Zhang Dechang, told the Beijing News that the captors initially demanded payment of 1.2 million yuan (£119,300, $189,800) for the return of the men and boats.

The captors then reportedly reduced their demand to 900,000 yuan.

Mr Zhang said that the captors included both North Koreans and Chinese, according to a Global Times report last week.

''They had guns; no one resisted. The captured fishermen have been locked in a small house, with no food to eat,'' he was quoted as saying in the report.

China is North Korea's closest ally. But the waters of the Yellow Sea, home to rich marine life, have seen clashes in the past between vessels from China and the two Koreas.

According to Xinhua, Chinese Ambassador Liu Hongcai and other diplomats worked on securing the release "through negotiation and close contact" with North Korea.

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