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Malaysia investigates Chinese barge suspected of links to looting of British WW2 wrecks

Malaysia’s maritime agency has said it found a cannon shell believed to be from the second world war on a Chinese-registered vessel and was investigating if the barge carrier was involved in the looting of two British warship wrecks in the South China Sea.

The agency said it detained the vessel registered in Fuzhou, China, on Sunday for anchoring without a permit off southern Johor state, and that an inspection revealed scrap metal and a cannon shell it suspected dated from the second world war. It said there were 32 crew members aboard, including 21 Chinese, 10 from Bangladesh and a Malaysian.

The maritime agency said it believed the rusty cannon shell was linked to the police seizure of dozens of unexploded artillery and other relics at a private scrapyard in Johor. The New Straits Times newspaper reported that the ammunition was believed to be from the warships and that police conducted an on-site controlled explosion of the weapons.

Malaysian media reported that illegal salvage operators were believed to have targeted the HMS Repulse and the HMS Prince of Wales, which were sunk in 1941 by Japanese torpedoes, days after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

A total of 842 sailors died, and the shipwrecks off the coast of central Pahang state are designated war graves. Fishers and divers alerted authorities after spotting a foreign vessel near the area last month.

Pictures and a video released by the agency showed a barge carrier with a large crane and heaps of rusty metal on board. Known as prewar steel, the material from the two warships is valuable and could be smelted for use in manufacturing of some scientific and medical equipment.

This undated photo released by the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) shows scrap metal and an old cannon shell on a Chinese-registered vessel after it was detained in the waters of east Johor. Photograph: AP

The agency said officials from the National Heritage Department and others will work together to identify the cannon shell.

Britain’s National Museum of the Royal Navy said last week it was “distressed and concerned at the apparent vandalism for personal profit”.

It was not the first time that the two shipwrecks have been targeted.

The New Straits Times reported that foreign treasure hunters used homemade explosives in 2015 to detonate the heavy steel plates on the ships for easy pickings. Other media said authorities detained a Vietnamese vessel involved in the looting of the wreckage at the time.

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