HANOI - NINE Vietnamese fishermen whose vessel vanished when it was released by China after being detained for a month have made contact and are probably back in disputed territory, officials said on Sunday.

The men were captured while fishing in the Paracels, an archipelago in the South China Sea claimed by China and Vietnam, and then disappeared last week soon after they were freed by Chinese authorities.

But the crew has now been reached, said Ngo Duy Muoi, head of the border guard force in central Quang Ngai, where the vessel originates from. 'The captain's family told us he contacted them briefly on Saturday,' he told AFP.

Mr Muoi said authorities had not heard from the men directly but added they are believed to have returned to the Paracels. Thanh Nien newspaper also reported on Sunday that the Vietnamese embassy in Beijing had received confirmation from China that the crew had been located.

Questions over the men's whereabouts were raised last week when they failed to return after their release was announced at a regional defence ministers' meeting in Hanoi, where the disputed South China Sea areas had been discussed. Vietnam and China both claim ownership and control of the Paracels and a more southerly archipelago, the Spratlys.

Since last year, Vietnam has reported numerous cases of fishing boats and equipment being seized by China but foreign ministry spokesman Nguyen Phuong Nga has said it was the first time fishermen had been lost after being freed.

Missing Vietnam sailors found