Vietnam has made moves towards asserting its claim to the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, sending a group of tourists to the area, while seeking to reassure its neighbors that friendly relations will continue, RFA's Vietnamese service reports.

"Vietnamese people have right to travel on their home land," National Administration of Tourism spokesman Duong Xuan Hoi told RFA. "No one can protest at this action, nor hamper it."

Vietnam launched its first ever commercial tour to the islands, known as Truong Sa in Vietnamese. The tour departed from Ho Chi Minh City at 8 a.m local time, and will last eight days and seven nights. Representatives from 30 tour companies were among the 100-strong group.

Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Le Van Bang said Tuesday that Vietnam had the right to take tourists to the islets. China, the Philippines, and Taiwan have questioned or protested the move, but Bang said Vietnam stood firmly behind its decision.

"Vietnam has sovereignty on the Spratly and Paracel Islands. That is our position�this is our land. We are acting in accordance with our law," he said. "This is a civilian activity, a tourist activity on our land. This is normal." However, he emphasized that Vietnam would continue to build friendly relations with neighboring Asian countries.

The Spratlys are claimed fully or in part by Vietnam, China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei. The archipelago comprises around 100 atolls, islets, and reefs scattered across one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.

The area is teeming with fish and believed rich in oil and natural gas reserves, and has been hotly disputed for many years.#####


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