Law enforcement officers found 100 unexploded artillery shells and piles of rusty metal on board the rig in the South China Sea.
Malaysian authorities have seized a Chinese registered dredger suspected of looting the wrecks of British warships that sank off the eastern coast of the peninsula during World War II.
The Malaysian Maritime Law Enforcement Agency said in a statement on Facebook on Tuesday that Chuan Hong 68, registered in Fuzhou, was arrested off the coast of the Malaysian state of Johor on May 28.
In a joint operation with the police, the officers found 100 unexploded artillery shells on board.
Pictures released by the agency showed piles of rusted metal on the roof of the boat, as well as winches and cutting equipment.
“The Malaysian Maritime Agency (Malaysian Maritime Law Enforcement Agency) does not exclude the possibility that this ship was involved in the theft of the wreckage of an old British warship,” the statement said.
HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales sank in the South China Sea after being attacked by Japanese fighter planes in December 1941. Almost 850 sailors were killed in one of the worst disasters in British naval history.
The wreck has been designated as a war grave and is not meant to be disturbed.
“We are distressed and concerned about the apparent vandalism for personal gain,” Dominic Tweedle, director general of the National Museum of the Royal Navy, said in a statement after Malaysian media — which was received by local fishermen — reported suspicious activity around the wrecks. .
Chuan Hong was initially detained for docking without a permit.
Officials said the ship’s 32 crew members, including 21 Chinese, 10 Bangladeshis and a Malaysian, were questioned.
In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Mao Ning told reporters that the government was aware of the case.
She said the Chinese Embassy in Kuala Lumpur has been in touch with the Malaysian authorities and asked them to “handle the case fairly in accordance with the law,” adding that the “security and legal rights and interests” of Chinese citizens should also be protected.
Two British shipwrecks have previously been targeted by illegal salvage teams.
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