An investigation is being launched into claims that up to 10 British Second World War wrecks in Asia have been plundered for scrap metal.
Gavin Williamson, the Defence Secretary, said he was “very concerned” to hear fresh allegations that remains of four ships lying off the Malaysian and Indonesian coasts have been looted.
It comes after six wrecks, including Royal Navy battleships HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse, were feared to have been damaged or destroyed by scavengers.
Altogether the wrecks are thought to be the final resting place for hundreds of Royal Navy sailors and civilians.
Remains of the British and Dutch sailors were reportedly dumped by the metal merchants in an Indonesian cemetery.
Mr Williams said the Government “absolutely condemns” the unauthorised disturbance of any wreck containing human remains.
“I am very concerned to hear any allegations of incidents of Royal Navy wrecks being plundered in the Far East,” he said.
“We will work closely with the Indonesian and Malaysian governments to investigate these claims.”
The wrecks of HMS Tien Kwang, HMS Kuala, HMS Banka and SS Loch Ranza had recently been targeted by thieves for their metal, the Mail on Sunday reported.
HMS Tien Kwang, a submarine chaser, and HMS Kuala, an auxiliary patrol vessel, were carrying hundreds of evacuees when they were attacked by Japanese bombers near the Indonesian Riau Islands on February 1942.
Earlier that month the SS Loch Ranza, a cargo ship, had been set on fire in a Japanese air raid off the Riau Islands and exploded, killing seven men.
It came after HMS Banka, a minesweeper, sank after hitting a mine off the coast of Malaysia in December 1941, killing its crew of four British officers and 34 Malay sailors.
Chinese-owned barges fitted with cranes have been carrying out the illegal operations, the newspaper reported.
Relatives of sailors expressed horror earlier this year at reports that their bodies may have been dumped in an unmarked mass grave in Indonesia.
“They have no respect for anyone”, Shirley McGowan, whose grand-father was killed in the sinking of HMS Repulse, told The Telegraph in February. “For them, it is only about the dollars.
“These ships are war graves and they should be treated as such”, she added.
Looters are said to favour targeting the Second World War-era wrecks because of the ship steel’s properties.
Built before the advent of atomic weapons, the metal has absorbed little background radiation, making the material suitable for sensitive instruments.
Royal Navy battleships HMS Prince of Wales, where Churchill and Roosevelt signed the Atlantic Charter, and HMS Repulse both sank off the Malaysian coast, on December 10 1941.
In 2014, the ships, the last resting places of more than 830 Royal Navy sailors, were found to have been damaged by scavengers.
Two years ago, the MoD was accused of failing to protect historic wartime wrecks after it was disclosed three British warships, the HMS Exeter, HMS Encounter and HMS Electra, been broken up and removed by illegal scrap metal scavengers.
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