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Vietnam slams 'illegal' Taiwan Spratlys tour
by Staff Writers
Hanoi (AFP) March 24, 2016

Six wounded in gun attack on Chinese bus in Laos
Bangkok (AFP) March 24, 2016 - Beijing Thursday called on Laos to bolster protection for Chinese citizens within its borders after six of its nationals were wounded by gunmen in the third attack of its kind this year.

The shooting took place north of the tourist hotspot Vang Vieng late Wednesday, when assailants opened fire on a Chinese passenger bus carrying 28 people from Kunming in southwestern China to the Laos capital Vientiane.

Six of the passengers were injured, two of them seriously, China's foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters.

"After the incident, the Chinese foreign ministry and embassy in Laos quickly launched representations to Laos, demanding Laos send military and police assistance to fully rescue the wounded... and to take concrete steps to strengthen the protection of Chinese citizens' safety," she said.

The foreign ministry batted down speculation that the victims were targeted on the basis of their nationality, despite two other similarly mysterious attacks this year that have killed three Chinese citizens and injured others in the mountainous region.

"When the criminals carried out their crimes it was not on the basis of nationality," Chua said.

The other attacks, in January and early March, prompted travel warnings from the US embassy in Vientiane.

The warning cited "the unpredictable nature of the violence and the lack of official information regarding possible motives or a Lao government response."

Laos is tightly run by its opaque Communist leaders, who bar a free press and have not offered a motive for the assaults.

The recent attacks have taken place in provinces historically home to outbreaks of insurgent violence waged by ethnic minorities against the country's repressive one-party state.

But Beijing's growing footprint in the poor nation has also stirred unease among locals in recent years.

China has invested heavily in Laos and capitalised on its bountiful water, forestry and mineral resources.

While this flood of foreign investment has fuelled impressive economic growth in the landlocked country over the past decade, the gains have not been evenly distributed and poverty remains widespread.

Normally isolated Laos will open its doors to host US President Barack Obama later this year, the culmination of its chairmanship of the ASEAN regional bloc.

Vietnam on Thursday hit back at Taiwan for taking international media on a tour of a disputed island in the South China Sea, saying the "illegal and worthless" trip had further raised tensions in the hotly contested waters.

Taiwanese officials on Wednesday took journalists to Taiping, the largest island in the Spratlys chain, which it controls and views as part of its territory.

The Spratlys are also claimed in part or whole by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei and have been at the centre of escalating rows.

"Taiwan, despite concerns and objections from Vietnam and the international community, sent journalists to Taiping Island," Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Hai Binh said in a statement.

"This is a serious violation of Vietnam's sovereignty, escalates tensions and is not conducive to maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea."

A visit to Taiping by Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou in January triggered criticism from the United States which described it as "extremely unhelpful", as well as protests from Vietnam and the Philippines.

The Philippines is currently in the midst of an arbitration case against China at the Hague over the South China Sea. A ruling on the case is expected before May.

As part of its case, the Philippines argues that Taiping and other islands are just "rocks", a categorisation which helps its broad claims in the area.

Taiwan disagrees, saying Taiping is a fully fledged island, a designation which entitles it to a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone.

On Wednesday, journalists were shown facilities including a hospital, post office and temple, as well as visiting a monument engraved with the words "Taiping Island" during the three-hour visit.

"Any activities by foreigners carried on the two island chains and not approved by Vietnam are illegal and worthless," Binh added.

Rival claimants in the South China Sea have been beefing up their military presence in the disputed region, and other countries have complained China is becoming increasingly aggressive in pressing its case.

Beijing has reclaimed more than 2,900 acres of land in less than two years in an intensive island-building campaign and has deployed surface-to-air missiles on a disputed island there, according to Taipei and Washington.

Other claimants, including Vietnam, have carried out reclamation work on islands they control, but the scale and pace is dwarfed by that of Beijing.

Nepal agrees fuel deal with China to curb reliance on India
Kathmandu (AFP) March 24, 2016 - Nepal has secured a deal for China to supply it with fuel, as the energy-starved Himalayan nation seeks to deepen ties with Beijing and reduce its reliance on India.

The agreement was signed during a visit by Nepali Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli to Beijing, following months of frosty relations with New Delhi, traditionally the sole supplier of fuel to landlocked Nepal.

"Both sides agreed to conclude a commercial deal on the supply of petroleum products from China to Nepal", the two countries said in a joint statement released in Beijing on Wednesday, without giving further details.

Nepal's acute dependence on India was underscored by a recent months-long border blockade by demonstrators from its Madhesi minority, who were protesting against a new constitution.

The slow movement of cargo at checkpoints where no protests were taking place prompted Kathmandu to accuse New Delhi, which has close links to the Madhesis, of imposing an "unofficial blockade", a charge India denied.

The blockade, which ended last month, sparked severe shortages of gas, medicines and other vital supplies and forced Nepal to turn to its only other neighbour, China for emergency fuel.

Officials in Kathmandu welcomed this week's deal but warned that Nepal's mountainous terrain would make it difficult to transport supplies between the two countries.

"This is a good start but there is a lot we still need to do in terms of road connectivity and infrastructure development... among other issues," said Sushil Bhattarai, acting deputy managing director at the state-run Nepal Oil Corporation.

"It is not going to happen overnight," Bhattarai told AFP.

China has also agreed to build oil storage facilities for Nepal, the joint statement said.

In October Nepal signed a memorandum of understanding with China National United Oil Corporation, its first ever fuel agreement with China, as the shortages led to overnight queues at gas stations.

Prime Minister Oli's visit to China comes a month after his trip to India -- a traditional first overseas stop for Nepali premiers -- to mend ties strained by the border blockade.

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