BEIJING - Fourteen Chinese fishermen, illegally seized by the Japanese authorities, returned home Monday afternoon on a chartered flight organized by the Chinese government.
Their plane landed in China's southeastern port city of Fuzhou, capital of Fujian province, after China repeatedly lodged a number of protests demanding Japan let the fishermen return home.
The fishermen were illegally held on board their trawler for seven days at Japan's Ishigaki port after their boat was intercepted by Japan Coast Guard patrol vessels near China's Diaoyu Islands on Sept 7.
China has repeatedly lodged protests to Japan over the incident, and all Chinese people, including compatriots living overseas, have denounced Japan's illegal moves, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said on Monday.
"All this reflects the staunch will and determination of the Chinese government and people to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity," she said.
However, the trawler's 41-year-old captain, Zhan Qixiong, was still being held illegally by the Japanese on the alleged charge of "disturbing official duty".
"China strongly demands that Japan immediately let him return," Jiang said.
A Japanese court ruled on Friday that he could be detained until Sept 19 when prosecutors have to decide whether to lay formal charges against him.
The fishing boat, which was illegally seized by the Japanese when operating in a traditional fishing area near the Diaoyu Islands, set sail for home on Monday with a Chinese fishery administration ship sent by the government ready to offer assistance, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Officials from the Foreign Ministry, the Ministry of Agriculture, and the government of Fujian province were on board the chartered plane to welcome the fishermen and extend any possible assistance.
The flight departed Fuzhou Changle International Airport at around 4 am on Monday, and returned with the boat's crew at 2:55 pm. In emotional scenes, the 14 fishermen, who were later sent to Jinjishan Sanatorium for a medical examination, hugged their family members and friends upon arrival.
Fisherman Wang Guohua from Putian city in Fujian thanked the government and people for their efforts in bringing him and other crew members back home before expressing his desire for the captain's speedy and safe return.
"We are back home, but our captain is not. We hope our captain can return to his family, like us, soon," Wang said.
He said that they had done nothing wrong as the Diaoyu Islands were Chinese.
"For generations we have fished in those waters and so how could they seize us?" Xinhua quoted Wang as saying upon his arrival.
The seizure of the Chinese trawler and its crew by the Japan Coast Guard off the Diaoyu Islands on the East China Sea developed into a diplomatic crisis between China and Japan.
State Councilor Dai Bingguo on Sunday told Japan to make a "wise political resolution" and immediately release the captain, fishermen and trawler.
Dai made the remarks when summoning Japanese Ambassador Uichiro Niwa in the early hours of Sunday. It was the fourth time that the Japanese envoy was summoned.
A Beijing-based scholar, Hu Feiyue, said that Japan's actions were related to its domestic politics.
"To return the 14 illegally detained fishermen is actually one step in their plan, keeping them any longer would have been a burden," he said.
"Substantial progress will probably be made after Japan's leadership election, but China has no reason to back off."
Japan's ruling party is holding a leadership election on Tuesday and both candidates, Prime Minister Naoto Kan and challenger Ichiro Ozawa, have insisted that domestic law covers the Diaoyu Islands.