Malaysia's maritime agency said Monday it found a cannon shell believed to be from World War II on a Chinese-registered vessel and was investigating if the barge carrier was involved in the looting of two British warship wrecks in the South China Sea.
Malaysian media reported that illegal salvage operators were believed to have targeted the HMS Repulse and the HMS Prince of Wales, which were sunk in 1941 by Japanese torpedoes, days after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
A total of 842 sailors perished, and the shipwrecks off the coast of central Pahang state are designated war graves. Fishermen and divers alerted authorities after spotting a foreign vessel near the area last month.
The agency said Sunday it detained the vessel registered in Fuzhou, China, for anchoring without a permit off southern Johor state. It said there were 32 crew members aboard, including 21 Chinese, 10 from Bangladesh and a Malaysian.
The agency said officials from the National Heritage Department and others will work together to identify the cannon shell.
Britain's National Museum of the Royal Navy last week said it was "distressed and concerned at the apparent vandalism for personal profit."
The maritime agency said it believed the rusty cannon shell was linked to the police seizure of dozens of unexploded artillery and other relics at a private scrapyard in Johor. The New Straits Times newspaper reported that the ammunitions were believed to be from the warships and that police conducted an on-site controlled explosion of the weapons.
Pictures and a video released by the agency showed a barge carrier with a large crane and heaps of rusty metal on board. Known as pre-war steel, the material from the two warships is valuable and could be smelted for use in manufacturing of some scientific and medical equipment.
It was not the first time that the two shipwrecks were targeted.
The New Straits Times reported that foreign treasure hunters used homemade explosives in 2015 to detonate the heavy steel plates on the ships for easy pickings. Other media said authorities detained a Vietnamese vessel involved in the looting of the wreckage at the time.