By Jethro Mullen, CNN
May 18, 2014 — Updated 1528 GMT (2328 HKT)
Hong Kong (CNN) — China has evacuated more than 3,000 of its citizens from Vietnam and is sending ships to retrieve more of them after deadly anti-Chinese violence erupted last week over a territorial dispute between the two countries.
Five Chinese ships will travel to Vietnam to help with the evacuation, the official Chinese news agency Xinhua reported Sunday, citing the Ministry of Transport. One of the ships has already set off from the southern island province of Hainan, the ministry said.
Sixteen critically injured Chinese citizens were flown out of Vietnam on Sunday morning on a chartered medical plane organized by Chinese authorities, Xinhua said.
Two Chinese citizens were killed and more than 100 others were injured in the violence that hit parts of Vietnam last week, according to the news agency. Some of the worst violence appeared to have taken place in the central coastal province of Ha Tinh.
Foreign factories, particularly those run by companies from China and Taiwan, were burned and looted by rioters outraged over Beijing’s decision to send an oil rig into waters of the South China Sea that both countries claim as sovereign territory.
Protests spin out of control
Vietnamese authorities initially allowed protests, which are usually forbidden in the country, to take place over the Chinese move. But after the unrest spiraled lethally out of control, the government tried to rein in its angry citizens.
On Saturday, the government sent out a series of text messages to cell-phone users saying Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung was urging people “not to participate in illegal protests that cause public disorder and harm social safety.”
Chinese officials have repeatedly called on Vietnam to take action over the riots, protect Chinese citizens and help victims.
Vietnamese authorities have arrested hundreds of suspects and started legal proceedings against several of them, Vietnam’s state-run news agency VNA reported Saturday, citing Minister of Public Security Tran Dai Quang.
He described the attacks as regrettable, saying dozens of police officers were injured as they tried to bring the situation under control.
Ships clash at sea
But out in the South China Sea, neither side appears to be showing any sign of backing down over the territorial dispute that sparked the violence.
VNA on Saturday accused China of continuing to show “its aggressiveness by sending more military ships” to the area around the oil rig. Vietnam has demanded that China immediately withdraw the rig from the disputed waters.
The news agency cited Nguyen Van Trung, an official at the Vietnam Fisheries Surveillance Department, as saying that China had 119 ships in the area on Saturday morning, including warships, coast guard vessels and fishing boats.
Some of the ships were provoking the Vietnamese vessels by ramming them and firing water cannons at them, he said.
‘We are not afraid of trouble’
China, for its part, has continued to accuse Vietnamese ships of similar acts, saying they are trying to disrupt the oil rig’s drilling operation. It has declared a three-mile exclusion zone around the rig, which is operated by the state-owned oil and gas company CNOOC.
“We do not make trouble, but we are not afraid of trouble,” Gen. Fang Fenghui, the chief of the general staff of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), said Thursday during a visit to the United States.
“In matters of territory, our attitude is firm. We won’t give an inch,” Fang said after meeting U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey.
Relations between China and Vietnam soured earlier this month, when the Chinese platform began drilling for oil near the Paracel Islands, which are claimed by both countries.
At the time, the U.S. State Department called the move “provocative,” saying it “raises tensions.”
Beijing has laid claim to most of the South China Sea, putting it at odds with several of its neighbors in the region, including the Philippines and Malaysia. China is also locked in a bitter dispute with Japan over a group of tiny islands in the East China Sea.
“We have to acknowledge there are territorial disputes,” including “what exactly is the status quo and who is seeking to change it,” Dempsey said Thursday at the news conference with Fang of the PLA.
His comments were a veiled reference to Washington’s view that Beijing is attempting to change the status quo by more aggressively seeking to establish control over disputed areas.
Protestors torch factories in southern Vietnam as China protests escalate
CNN’s Samira Said and David McKenzie contributed to this report.