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TAIPEI, April 7 - Taiwan has spotted Chinesedrones circling the Taipei-controlled Pratas Islands in theSouth China Sea and may shoot them down if they stray too close,a government minister said on Wednesday, a move that coulddramatically increase tensions with Beijing.

Speaking at parliament, Lee Chung-wei, who heads the OceanAffairs Council under whose purview the Coast Guard falls, saidthat they had recently spotted Chinese drones circling thePratas, though they have not flown over the islands.

"They have never entered our restricted waters and airspace,they've just flown around them at a certain distance," Lee said.

While China recognises no Taiwanese claims of sovereignty,its aircraft and ships generally stay outside Taiwan'srestricted zone, which extends 6 km from its coast.

Asked how the Coast Guard would react if a Chinese droneentered that restricted zone, Lee said they had rules ofengagement.

"After it enters it will be handled under the rules. If weneed to open fire, we open fire."

The Pratas lie at the top end of the disputed waterway, andhave become a relatively new source of intrigue betweenChinese-claimed Taiwan and Beijing.

In recent months Taiwan has complained of repeated Chineseair force activity near the islands, which Taiwan's Coast Guardonly lightly defends though there are periodic deployments ofmarines. There is no permanent civilian population, onlyoccasional visiting scientists.

In October, Hong Kong air traffic controllers warned off aTaiwanese civilian flight flying to the Pratas on a routineweekly supply run, forcing it to turn back.

The Pratas, the closest Taiwan-controlled territory to HongKong, have also taken on extra significance sinceanti-government protests began in the Chinese-run city.

Taiwan has intercepted at least one boat close to the Pratascarrying people fleeing from Hong Kong trying to make their wayto Taiwan.

Taiwan's other main South China Sea island is Itu Aba, alsoknown as Taiping Island, which is part of the Spratlyarchipelago.

Lee said they have not spotted Chinese drones there. REUTERS



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