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The Ministry of Defence says it will take action if UK warships sunk off Indonesia during the Second World War have been looted.

Three Royal Navy ships sunk in 1942 and considered war graves are thought to have been illegally salvaged for scrap metal, along with three Dutch vessels and US submarine USS Perch.

They were all sunk during the Battle of the Java Sea, when the Japanese defeated a joint British, American, Australian and Dutch fleet, with as many as 2,300 Allied servicemen killed. The MoD said:

"Desecration of wrecks of war and merchant vessels causes distress to loved ones of those lost on board … The desecration of a war grave is a serious offence."

"The UK government condemns the unauthorised disturbance of any wreck containing human remains."

The MoD added that international law protects war graves and it expects them to be left undisturbed.

"We have contacted the Indonesian authorities to express our serious concern at this news and to request that they investigate the reports and take appropriate action to protect the sites from any further disturbance.

"A military wreck should remain undisturbed and those who lost their lives on board should be allowed to rest in peace."

"Where we have evidence of desecration of these sites, we will take appropriate action."

An expedition to document sunken ships reportedly showed that destroyer HMS Encounter and heavy cruiser HMS Exeter (pictured top) had been almost completely taken from the sea bed.

HMS Exeter’s sinking

Much of another destroyer, HMS Electra, remains although it too has been looted.

The Dutch defence ministry has also begun an investigation into the disappearance of its three vessels.

But the head of the Indonesian National Archeological Centre, Bambang Budi Utomo, is quoted as saying by the Guardian that the country cannot be expected to protect the sites without assistance.

"The Dutch government cannot blame the Indonesian government because they never asked us to protect those ships. As there was no agreement or announcement, when the ships go missing, it is not our responsibility."

Navy spokesman Gig Jonias Mozes Sipasulta, meanwhile, told Agence France-Presse:

"The Indonesian navy cannot monitor all areas all the time. If they ask why the ships are missing, I’m going to ask them back, why didn’t they guard the ships?"

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