HONG KONG -- The skipper of a yacht fired on by suspected Vietnamese gunners from a South China Sea island said today he was trying to leave the area when he was attacked without warning.
Peter Marx, 37, said he had approached the disputed Spratly Island group April 10 in his 51-foot catamaran Sidhartha, chartered by four West German amateur radio buffs, to set up a ham radio station one one of the islands.
He said he approached Amboyna Cay, one of the Spratlys, to use it as a navigation aid to find a reef about 19 miles east when the attack occurred.
'As we drew closer we noted there were some structures on the island and we all together decided it would be wise to go somewhere else,' Marx said in a statement delivered at a Hong Kong hotel today.
'We could not recognize who was on the island, we could not see any flag. It just did not look friendly.
'We observed some people running ... and especially a small group fiddling around with some cannon ... which made me press the accelerator further down and try to get away.'
Marx, his Singaporean wife, Jenny, 34, Baldur Drobnica, 48, and Norbert Willaud, all survived the attack and the nine days adrift in a dinghy without food or water before being rescued by the Panamanian-registered freighter Linden Tuesday.
Diethelm Mueller, 42, was killed during the attack and Gero Band, 46, died of dehydration and exposure one day before rescue.
'The boat was burning very brightly,' Marx said. 'The dinghy ... had fallen into the water -- our only means of survival and since I was bleeding quite badly, I asked my wife how she felt about it and she ... went and got it.'
Marx said they scrambled into the dinghy and drifted from the island as sunset approached. The shelling continued until darkness.
The Linden's Japanese captain, Tadashi Inose, said Marx told him he 'suspected' the troops that fired were Vietnamese.
'They don't know exactly, but they suppose' they were Vietnamese, Inose said after his ship anchored in Hong Kong's Victoria Harbor.
On arrival in Hong Kong shortly before dawn today, the survivors, bandaged and wearing borrowed clothes, limped down the ladder to a police launch. They were taken to a hospital and released about six hours later.
Intelligence sources said the Vietnamese had maintained a garrison of several hundred troops on Amboyna Cay since before 1975. The 33 Spratly Islands -- spread over an area of 65,000 square miles -- are claimed by Vietnam, China, Taiwan, Malaysia and the Philippines.
The waters around the islands, about 350 miles southeast of Vietnam, are believed to harbor undersea oil deposits.