A Chinese salvage ship has been caught looting British World War II shipwrecks near the Malaysian coast.
The vessel, a dredger named Chuan Hong 68, was seen lurking near the shipwrecks of the Royal Navy battleship HMS Prince of Wales and cruiser HMS Repulse, according to the U.K.’s Daily Mail.
Imperial Japanese forces destroyed both ships in December 1941, resulting in the loss of 842 British sailors — a significant setback for the Royal Navy in the Far East.
The sites of the shipwrecks are officially designated war graves, according to a statement from the Royal Navy National Museum.
Chuan Hong 68’s activities were first noticed by Malaysian media and “open-source intelligence analysts” last week, News.com.au reported.
According to the U.S. Naval Institute, a private nonprofit military association, local reports indicated that Chuan Hong 68 was using a large dredging crane to lift metal scraps from the shipwrecks.
HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse were built with high-quality steel, according to reports. As such, the wrecks are a lucrative source of scraps that can be smelted and reused.
According to News.com.au, police discovered live ammunition, British anti-aircraft cannons, an anchor and pieces of a ship’s hull at a jetty in Malaysia.
Chuan Hong 68’s crew has a reputation for being a group of “illegal scavengers,” the Mail reported.
Speaking to the Malaysian outlet the New Straits Times, a source said that the vessel has been looting shipwrecks for about 10 years.
“Ten years ago, it resembled a dilapidated barge. But it is now fitted with high-technology equipment,” the source said of the ship.
“They operate mechanically and entirely from the surface of the barge, which is equipped with cranes sporting huge metal claws,” the source said, adding that “the claws can plunge more than [200 meters] deep. It chops up the ship and pulls up  tonnes of metal in one go.”
The crew reportedly consists of well-paid Chinese, Nepalese, Malaysian and Bangladeshi nationals.
The Times reported that Chuan Hong 68 has engaged in illegal scavenging of World War II shipwrecks off the coasts of Singapore, Cambodia and Vietnam and is wanted by authorities in Indonesia.
Adm. Lord Alan West, former head of the Royal Navy, called the scavenging operation an “absolute disgrace,” according to the Mail.
“These are burial sites with all the bodies still there. These Chinese wreckers or scrap metal men don’t give a damn about this,” he said.
“It’s a loathsome thing to do. It’s very distressing for the families and next of kin of those sailors killed on HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales.”
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