The nine Terrex infantry carrier vehicles of Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) seized and held in Hong Kong have been released and are on their way back, the defence minister has said.
"Our Terrexes left Hong Kong port this morning at 0415hrs. Next stop, home," Ng Eng Hen announced on Facebook on Friday morning. The vehicles, which were at the centre of a China-Singapore spat, will be shipped by APL, the same commercial carrier that ferried the SAF assets from Taiwan in November. The armoured carrier will arrive in Singapore in a week's time Ng said.
There was heavy security at the Hong Kong Customs compound where the Terrex carriers were kept before they were moved out and shipped to Singapore. Armed officers accompanied the convoy to a container terminal at the port, the South China Morning Post reported.
Singapore's Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had requested Singapore to release the vehicles quickly after they were confiscated on November 23. The vehicles had been shipped in a commercial carrier after they took part in a military training by the SAF in Taiwan.
The capture of the vehicles immediately caused a deterioration in Singapore's ties with China, its biggest trading partner. The seizure of military vehicles in self-ruled Hong Kong came in the wake of Singapore voicing its support to an international court's ruling that China could not claim wholesale sovereignty over the South China Sea.
The capture of vehicles was seen in Singapore as China's retaliation against it while Chinese state media warned the city state of being hypocritical. The Global Times launched stern criticism of Singapore over its Taiwan ties after the carriers were intercepted by Hong Kong customs. The communist party mouthpiece said Singapore was deliberately undermining the One-China principle which espouses the eventual merger of Taiwan with mainland under the same flag.
Though Singapore's military and other ties with Taiwan go back to the 1970s China's stance is that the island nation should not have continued the military partnership after it established diplomatic ties with Beijing in the 1990s.
Despite Singapore leadership asking Hong Kong to release the vehicles immediately the city government took time looking in to the breach of shipping rules that led to the confiscation. Earlier this week, Hong Kong's Commissioner of Customs and Excise Roy Tang said the SAF vehicles were seized because "there was a suspected breach of the Hong Kong law".
He did not say which parties were under scrutiny but clarified later that the probe would not target Singapore because the government was not found to be involved in any breach of shipping rules, TODAY reported.