Taiwan plans troop withdrawal from islets near China

TAIPEI - Taiwan plans to withdraw troops from two islets near the Chinese mainland and will turn the former battleground into a tourist attraction as relations improve, officials said Wednesday.

The two tiny islets, Tatan and Ertan, form part of the Taiwan-controlled Kinmen island group off southeast China's Xiamen city and are currently manned by around 120 soldiers.

Kinmen county magistrate Lee Wuo-shih Tuesday discussed the plan for the two islands with minister without portfolio Lin Cheng-ze.

"The minister has in principle agreed to our plan of troop withdrawal from the two islets... once the plan is completed, it will be another crucial sign of the improving ties between Taiwan and the mainland," Lee told AFP.

The two islets, which together have an area of little more than one square kilometer (0.4 square mile), are about four kilometres (2.5 miles) from Xiamen at the nearest point.

While the two islets may soon be emptied of soldiers, there is no indication that Taiwan will terminate its garrison on much-larger Kinmen island any time soon. The exact number of soldiers there is a secret.

Lee said he was confident that reminders of a fierce 1950 battle on the two fortified islets would lure visitors from both Taiwan and the Chinese mainland.

"Various sites related to the battle remain intact. This is bound to attract a lot of interest from tourists," he said.

According to Taiwan's military authorities, a 300-strong Taiwanese garrison wiped out more than 700 Chinese troops trying to land on the fortified frontline islets following an intensive artillery bombardment in July 1950.

The battle was part of the Chinese communists' attempts to invade Taiwan, where troops led by Chiang Kai-shek took refuge after being driven from the mainland at the end of a civil war in 1949.

The Chinese army fired more than 470,000 shells on Kinmen and other nearby islets in a 44-day bombardment beginning on August 23, 1958, killing 618 servicemen and civilians and injuring more than 2,600.

As late as the 1970s China still bombarded the island, although by then the shells were stuffed with propaganda leaflets.

Tensions across the Taiwan Strait have eased since China-friendly Ma Ying-jeou became Taiwan's president in 2008, pledging to strengthen trade links and allow in more mainland tourists.

Ma was re-elected in January 2012 for a second and last four-year term.

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