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BEIJING (Reuters) - China will go after "looters" who look for treasure from sunken ships in the disputed South China Sea without permission, but will face a tough job in doing so as the waters are so extensive, state media said on Friday.
Some treasure seekers have used explosives to get at the porcelain, gold and silver contained in ships which have sunk around the Paracel Islands, which lies on the maritime route of the old Silk Road, Xinhua news agency said.
"All the 48 cultural relics sites in Xisha (the Paracels) have been looted to various degrees," it quoted Wang Yiping, head of Hainan province's cultural heritage bureau, as saying. "Among them, 26 sites were seriously looted."
Chinese authorities seized six small boats "hired by looters" in April near the Paracels, confiscating more than 1,400 pieces of porcelain, Wang added. However, three larger boats fled.
"It remains a tough job to enforce the law around such a huge area, but we will not relent," added Wen Li, an official with the provincial marine environment monitoring team.
"Various agencies and government departments are discussing measures to strengthen supervision to ensure the safety of the relics in the South China Sea," he said.
China, Taiwan and four Southeast Asian states, including the Philippines and Vietnam, all have conflicting claims over the islets and atolls in the South China Sea, an area believed to have rich deposits of oil and gas. It is also a rich fishing ground.
Claimants to the sea have been trying to cool tension after a series of disputes this year, including when Chinese patrol boats threatened to ram a Philippine-contracted survey ship in the Reed Bank in March.
China has the most extensive claims, and says it has had sovereignty since ancient times.
Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Sugita Katyal