In Brief

British WWII mystery: Shipwrecks 'disappear' from Java Sea

Illegal scrap metal dealers blamed for dismantling British ships considered war graves

Two British shipwrecks dating from World War II have "vanished" from the floor of the Java Sea, and several others have been partially removed, in raids blamed on illegal scrap metal salvage operators.

The HMS Exeter, a 175m heavy cruiser, and the destroyer HMS Encounter, have been "almost totally removed", The Guardian says, while the 100m destroyer, HMS Electra, has been partially cut away, although "a sizeable section of the wreck remained".

The remains of the 91m US submarine Perch, whose entire crew was captured by the Japanese during intense fighting in March 1942, has also disappeared, along with three Dutch wrecks.

The UK's Ministry of Defence has contacted the Indonesian authorities, seeking information about who might be responsible, the BBC reports

"We would expect that these sites are respected and left undisturbed without the express consent of the United Kingdom," the Ministry of Defence said.

Although several news outlets have described the disappearance of the wrecks as a "mystery", authorities believe the explanation is rather more pedestrian.

The Dutch defence ministry has laid the blame at the feet of illegal scrap metal operators, who use cranes and explosives to bring parts of the ships to the surface and remove them.

It added that dismantling the wrecks, considered to be war graves, amounted to "grave-robbing".

"They are the final resting place for hundreds of crew members who perished," says Dutch daily De Volkskrant, noting that "the looting of warships without the permission of the country of origin is against international law".

It is not the first time that historic shipwrecks have been disturbed by illegal salvaging operations. In October last year, the Straits Times reported that two other British warships, the HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse, had been "stripped bare, with the damage intensifying in recent months".

The paper quotes Andy Brockman, a British specialist in the archaeology of modern conflict, who warns that large-scale black market scrap looting has been going on "for years" and that "only international cooperation can save the remaining ships".

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