Four Chinese warships were spotted on Thursday passing through Sibutu Passage off Tawi-Tawi, reportedly close enough for residents of coastal communities to identify their hull numbers and take clear photos and videos.

Based on photos taken, the Chinese warships were identified through their bow numbers as 887, 552, 174 and 105, and all were armed with cannons.

Nakim Nuruddin Nakamo, in his post on FB, said they were traveling aboard a commercial vessel from Panggungan Island, Sitangkai to Bongao, Tawi-Tawi when they saw the huge Chinese warships.

'We saw four Chinese naval vessels passing through Sibutu Passage yesterday, May 2, 2024, while we were going home from Panggungan Island, Sitangkai to Bongao, Tawi-Tawi,' Nakamo said.

Some military personnel took photos of the ships but declined to share information, saying they were not in the position to do so.

The presence of the Chinese naval vessels had caused alarm among residents of Tawi-Tawi, who expressed fear of an escalation of the West Philippine Sea issue. One netizen commented that with the vastness of the West Philippine Sea and the South China Sea, there was no reason for the Chinese ships to pass through Sibutu.

But the Philippine Navy, through its spokesman for the West Philippine Sea Commodore Roy Vincent Trinidad, said that based on information available, the Chinese warships were traveling under 'innocent passage.'

'As long as they were not stopping and were traveling through innocent passage with coordination, that is not illegal. And we are waiting for the official reports from the ground,' Trinidad said.

Maj. Andrew Linao, spokesman for the Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom), confirmed the warships spotted were Chinese, citing reports from the Naval Forces Western Mindanao (NFWM)'s Littoral Monitoring Station (LMS) in Tawi-Tawi.

'It was confirmed those were Chinese Navy ships in the territorial waters of Tawi-Tawi. We cannot deny the fact the civilians themselves witnessed the event. And as to the possible encroachment, we will rely on the official report before we can submit our official reports to the proper national agency to act on it,' Linao said.

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