LOS ANGELES -- Three ships carrying 659 undocumented Chinese have been intercepted in international waters off the Baja coast by the U.S. Coast Guard, which last night was monitoring their progress, awaiting orders from Washington.
Coast Guard officials in Long Beach, Calif. said the interception of the ships, first sighted during the holiday weekend, was the largest in the agency's history. They also said it was the first time such ships had been intercepted in international waters off the West Coast.
The move comes just weeks after President Clinton announced a crackdown on immigrant smuggling operations amid a clamor against illegal immigration and in the wake of a flood of undocumented Chinese arrivals in recent months.
By last evening, the ship nearest U.S. waters was about 45 miles off the coast of Baja California, 150 miles south-southwest of San Diego. It carried 236 people and was stalled in the water with engine trouble. No children are on any of the boats, Coast Guard representatives said.
The other two ships, 300 and 600 miles south of San Diego, were moving slowly north and carrying a total of 423 people. "They're all right," Chief Warrant Officer John Hollis said in Long Beach. "There are no obvious problems."
There was some concern about a threat from Tropical Storm Calvin, which has pummeled the Pacific coast of Mexico, but the Coast Guard said the ships appeared to be in no danger.
The ships' masters told the Coast Guard that the vessels were registered in Taiwan, but the State Department had not yet received confirmation. However, after the U.S. government received permission from Taiwan, the Coast Guard boarded the ships Tuesday and yesterday. It wasn't clear whether the three boats were traveling together.
Because the ships are in international waters, the United States cannot tow the vessels in or send them away unless the government receives permission from Taiwan, Officer Hollis said.
"This is the most boats we've intercepted at one time, of undocumented Chinese aliens," Chief Petty Officer Brandy Ian said. The three boats' cargo of 659 people is more than the 613 people intercepted in ships off the coast of California in 1992, she said.