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Zhoushan, China (AFP) Nov 21, 2013
A Chinese hospital ship set sail for the typhoon-ravaged Philippines Thursday, with foreign media given unprecedented access to a navy base as Beijing seeks to promote its aid effort nearly two weeks after the disaster.
The Peace Ark, a 300-bed floating navy medical facility, sounded its horn as it set off from a People's Liberation Army base on Zhoushan island, off the eastern province of Zhejiang.
It is expected to take three or four days to reach the Philippines, which is embroiled in a territorial row with China.
"With our efforts, we will make great contributions to the relationship between the Chinese people and the Philippine people," Shen Hao, deputy chief of staff of the East China Sea Fleet and commander of the mission, told reporters allowed on board the vessel before it left.
"We will do our utmost to make contributions to the Philippine side."
The deployment of the ship, which was featured on the front page of China's state-run Global Times newspaper on Thursday, comes as the world's second-largest economy seeks to counter international criticism of its relief effort.
After an initial outlay of only $100,000, the Chinese government has gradually upped its aid over the past two weeks, contributing $1.6 million worth of tents, blankets and other supplies.
Other Chinese organisations are also contributing, and a first crew of relief workers left on Wednesday, China's foreign ministry said.
By contrast, Japan has contributed $30 million to the Philippines, and the US has donated $20 million. Even the Swedish furniture group Ikea's charitable foundation surpassed China's initial outlay with a $2.7 million contribution to the UN children's agency UNICEF.
There is no sign outside the navy base announcing its identity, and officials said it was the first time foreign journalists had been allowed inside.
Rows of uniformed navy officers and sailors lined the quayside alongside the white hospital ship, which was flanked by naval warships in the dock.
Medical personnel in blue camouflage uniforms waved from the Peace Ark's deck as it pulled away from port.
One sailor's wife clutched a Chinese flag and said: "I'm proud of my husband. It's OK for the ship to go to the Philippines despite the state of relations."
Shen said the ship had just returned from another humanitarian mission in October, and commanders had cut short a one-month maintenance period to send it to the disaster zone.
The Peace Ark will initially be stationed in Samar province, but how long it remains in the Philippines will depend on the situation, officials said.
Sun Tao, head of the ship's hospital, said it had more than 100 doctors and nurses on board, and can handle eight surgeries simultaneously.
Doctors expect to handle disease caused by insanitary conditions and paediatric cases, he added.
The ship is often featured in Chinese media and is a key instrument of "soft power" for Beijing, which regularly sends it to Asian and African ports to offer free operations.
Another batch of emergency medical rescuers left for the Philippines later Thursday, the official Xinhua news agency said, quoting local authorities.
A 50-strong team left from the city of Hangzhou in Zhejiang province, the report said, adding many of them had taken part in rescue work after the Sichuan earthquake in 2008.
They will establish a field hospital to offer medical services for typhoon survivors and work on disease prevention and control.
Typhoon Haiyan, which smashed through the central Philippines on November 8, was one of the most powerful storms ever recorded on land.
Around 5,500 people are dead or missing after the storm, which affected more than 13 million people, of whom 4.4 million are now homeless.
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