KAGOSHIMA – The unidentified ship that sank in the East China Sea after a shootout with the Japan Coast Guard in December was carrying a shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile, sources said Wednesday.
The weapon was a model developed by the former Soviet Union, they said. The missile and its launcher were reportedly among arms retrieved by Japanese divers during a preliminary undersea probe of the ship, which Japan suspects was carrying North Korean agents.
Other weapons found near the ship, including machineguns and rocket launchers, were also Soviet-made, the sources said.
However, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Kosei Ueno denied the missile report, claiming a Yomiuri Shimbun story about it in the daily’s Wednesday edition is “based on speculation.”
Asked if something similar to a missile had been found, Ueno told a regularly scheduled news conference, “I have not received such a report.”
The sources said the missile, which apparently was not fired during the shootout with the coast guard, has a range of at least 3 km. It uses an infrared sensor that traces heat emitted by aircraft engines, they said.
The revelation that the ship was more heavily armed than had been initially suspected may prompt the coast guard to further review how it it deals with such vessels spotted in Japan’s territorial waters, the sources said.
On Wednesday, bad weather hampered the start of efforts to salvage the ship. The operation involving two government-chartered ships was scheduled to begin at 8 a.m.
According to the coast guard, preparations to start the operation began at around 7 a.m., but were halted due to high waves. The coast guard announced Wednesday afternoon that the operation planned for the day using submersibles was canceled.
The two salvage vessels chartered to raise the mystery ship arrived over the wreck earlier Wednesday.
The 498-ton Shinyo Maru and 657-ton Shintatsu Maru each carry a submersible that will be used for the preliminary salvage operation.
Japan Coast Guard officials said sonar operators on the Shintatsu Maru have pinpointed the mystery ship 90 meters down on the seabed.
The two submersibles will be lowered to assess the condition of the wreck and remove fishing nets and other obstacles.
The 3,992-ton patrol ship Izu is on the scene, serving as the command ship for several patrol vessels providing security in the area.
The entire salvage operation, which is estimated to cost 5.9 billion yen, is expected to be completed by around the end of next month at the earliest.
The ship sank within China’s exclusive economic zone and the Beijing government, which last week approved Japan’s plan to undertake the salvage, has kept two observer ships in the vicinity.
Fifteen people are believed to have been aboard the ship when it went down Dec. 22. Four bodies were recovered and the rest of the people on board are presumed dead.
Japan suspects the ship was probably on a spying or drug-trafficking mission off the Japanese coast when it was spotted by the coast guard.
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