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Report: Vietnam, Chinese ships exchange water cannon fire near oil rig in disputed waters

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HANOI, Vietnam - A Vietnamese patrol boat and several Chinese vessels blasted each other with water cannons Monday near an oil rig recently positioned by Beijing in disputed waters, Vietnamese state media reported, in the latest incident in a dangerous standoff between the two nations.

The Tuoi Tre newspaper said it was the first time that Vietnamese vessels have responded to aggressive Chinese actions close to the deep sea rig, which was positioned May 1 in an area of the South China Sea claimed by Beijing and Hanoi. Both sides have accused the other of ramming ships. Vietnam has presented a video showing Chinese ships hitting its vessels.

In Washington, Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday the U.S. and other nations involved in navigating in the South and East China Seas were deeply concerned about the "aggressive" Chinese action.

"We want to see a code of conduct, we want to see this resolved peacefully through the law of the sea, through arbitration, through any other means but not direct confrontation and aggressive action," Kerry said before a meeting at the State Department with Singapore's Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam.

Tuoi Tre newspaper, which had two journalists on the ship, said the Vietnamese vessel displayed a banner in Chinese urging Beijing to withdraw the rig.

Late Sunday, another newspaper quoted the coast guard chief as saying China had widened an exclusion zone around the rig to a radius of 10 miles (16 kilometres) and had deployed fighter jets to fly low over Vietnamese ships.

Vietnam has reacted with fury to the Chinese deployment, part of a campaign by Beijing to slowly cement its extensive sovereignty claims in the South China Sea, disregarding the anger of smaller Southeast Asian nations such as Vietnam and the Philippines which have rival claims.

Vietnam has demanded that China pull back the rig. China has refused, saying the waters are its "inherent territory." On Sunday, thousands of Vietnamese protesters took to the streets in Hanoi chanting anti-China slogans. For the first time, the protests were covered by Vietnamese state media, indicating that the authoritarian government supported them.

Prime Minster Nguyen Tan Dung said China had taken an "extremely dangerous action that has been directly endangering peace, stability, security, and marine safety." He was speaking Sunday at a meeting of Southeast Asian leaders in Myanmar that failed to come up with a statement criticizing China.

"Vietnam won't be successful in putting pressure on China," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Monday, adding that China hopes Vietnam will be "dispassionate and stop impeding China's operations."

The standoff close to the disputed Paracel Islands, which China seized from U.S.-backed South Vietnam in 1974, has led to fears of a fully blown naval confrontation between the two nations, which have fought one land and two sea battles over the last 40 years.

Vietnam says the islands fall within its continental shelf and 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone. China claims sovereignty over the area and most of the South China Sea, which is a rich fishing area and could have large oil and natural gas deposits.

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Associated Press writer Zhao Liang in Beijing contributed to this report.

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