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Guam military exercise postponed indefinitely after craft runs aground

Multinational military drills on Guam designed to show support for the free passage of vessels in international waters have been postponed indefinitely after a French landing craft ran aground.

The exercises, being held amid concerns that China could restrict access to the South China Sea, involve the US, UK, France and Japan, and were expected to begin on Friday and last a week.

US Navy Captain Jeff Grimes, chief of staff for Joint Region Marianas, told reporters he did not know when the drills would resume.

A French catamaran landing craft ran aground just offshore, said Jeff Landis, a spokesman for Naval Base Guam.

The vessel did not hit coral or spill any fuel, he said, and no one was injured. Friday's landing was meant to be a rehearsal for a drill at Tinian island on Saturday, Mr Landis said.

The drills around Guam and Tinian were scheduled to include amphibious landings, delivering forces by helicopter and urban patrols.

Two French ships on a four-month deployment to the Indian and Pacific oceans were to feature in the drills, along with UK helicopters and 70 UK troops deployed with the French amphibious assault ship FS Mistral.

Parts of the exercise were to feature British helicopters taking US marines ashore from a French vessel.

"The message we want to send is that we're always ready to train and we're always ready for the next crisis and humanitarian disaster wherever that may be," said US Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Kemper Jones, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment before the exercises were to begin.

About 100 marines from his unit were expected to be part of the drills.

China claims virtually the entire South China Sea and has aggressively tried to fortify its foothold in recent years by transforming seven mostly submerged reefs into island outposts, some with runways and radars and - more recently - weapons systems.

This has prompted criticism from other nations, who also claim the atolls, and from the US, which insists on freedom of navigation in international waters.

Critics fear China's actions could restrict movement in a key waterway for world trade and rich fishing grounds.

China says its island construction is mainly for civilian purposes, particularly to increase safety for ships. It has said it will not interfere with freedom of navigation or overflight, although questions remain on whether that includes military ships and aircraft.

Japan, which sent 50 soldiers and 160 sailors and landing craft, has been investing in amphibious training so it can defend its own islands.

Tokyo is particularly concerned that China might attempt to take over rocky, uninhabited outcrops in the East China Sea that it controls but Beijing claims.

Japan calls the islands Senkaku while China calls them Diaoyu. Japan has also expressed an interest in vessels being able to freely transit the South China Sea.

Guam and Tinian are about 1,500 miles south of Tokyo.

AP

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