US

Philippines verifying if Chinese ships left disputed shoal

FILE - In this Sept. 23, 2015, file photo, Chinese Coast Guard members approach Filipino fishermen as they confront each other off Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, also called the West Philippine Sea. The Philippines and the U.S. are trying to verify a report that Chinese coast guard ships have left a disputed shoal, allowing Filipino fishermen back to the rich fishing area that China seized in 2012, triggering tensions in the South China Sea. (AP Photo/Renato Etac, File)

FILE - In this Sept. 23, 2015, file photo, Chinese Coast Guard members approach Filipino fishermen as they confront each other off Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, also called the West Philippine Sea. The Philippines and the U.S. are trying to verify a report that Chinese coast guard ships have left a disputed shoal, allowing Filipino fishermen back to the rich fishing area that China seized in 2012, triggering tensions in the South China Sea. (AP Photo/Renato Etac, File)  (The Associated Press)

The Philippine defense chief says authorities are trying to verify a report that Chinese coast guard ships have left a disputed shoal and that Filipino fishermen have regained access to the rich fishing area that China seized in 2012.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said Friday that the Philippine coast guard has reported that Chinese coast guard ships have not been sighted at Scarborough Shoal in the last three days, but he added that the report still has to be validated.

Lorenzana told The Associated Press that a Philippine air force plane may conduct aerial surveillance of the area off the northwestern Philippines as early as Saturday.

Chinese coast guard ships have been driving Filipino fishermen away from the area since taking control of Scarborough.