British ships designated as war graves after being sunk during the Second World War have reportedly been plundered for scrap metal by pirates.
The UK government is investigating claims that 10 Royal Navy warships, which serve as the resting place for more than 1,000 dead sailors, have been looted by Chinese salvagers off the coast of Malaysia and Indonesia.
The remains of some of those who went down with the vessels have been dredged up by gangs of scavengers, along with pieces of their metal hulls, according to The Mail on Sunday.
HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse, battleships sunk by the Japanese in 1941, are among the boats said to have been plundered.
Some 835 British men lost their lives when the two ships went down.
Defence secretary Gavin Williamson said: “The UK government absolutely condemns the unauthorised disturbance of any wreck containing human remains, and always has done.
“A military wreck should remain undisturbed, and those who lost their lives on board should be allowed to rest in peace.
“I am therefore very concerned to hear any allegations of incidents of Royal Navy wrecks being plundered in the Far East.
“We will work closely with the Indonesian and Malaysian governments and local authorities to investigate these claims.”
Six British ships were previously thought to have been damaged by scavengers in Asian waters but that number is now believed to be higher.
The Mail on Sunday said “hardly a trace” of HMS Exeter, a heavy cruiser sunk off the coast of Java in 1942, was left on the seabed. The plundered ship went down with 54 sailors on board.
The wrecks of HMS Tien Kwang, HMS Kuala, HMS Banka and SS Loch Ranza have also recently been targeted by thieves in the region for their metal.
Chinese-owned barges fitted with cranes have been used to loot the ships, according to the newspaper. The scavengers drop huge anchors on the sunken vessels to smash them before using cranes to collect the pieces from the seabed.
The plundered metal is then taken to scrapyards in Indonesia and cut into smaller pieces before being shipped to China where it enters the global steel market.
Other countries’ wrecks have also been targeted in the region.
Earlier this year officials began to excavate a cemetery in Indonesia where it was believed the remains of Dutch and British sailors had been dumped by scavengers after being found in wrecks of warships that sank in the 1942 Battle of the Java Sea.
The plundering of military wrecks is against the UN International Salvaging Convention, as well as being illegal in the UK, Indonesia and Malaysia.