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BEIJING (Reuters) - China has allowed ships carrying North Korea coal to unload in port for "humanitarian reasons", but the cargo will not go through customs, the Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday.
Beijing banned imports of North Korean coal in late February for the rest of this year against the backdrop of Pyongyang's nuclear and missile tests and the increasingly bellicose rhetoric from the isolated country.
Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said the government allowed the ships - he did not specify how many - to offload after finding they were in desperate need of supplies.
"Considering the serious lack of supplies on some of the ships carrying North Korean coal, China, on humanitarian considerations, allowed them into port to unload but absolutely did not allow (the coal) to be imported," he told a daily news briefing.
He was responding to a question about reports that six North Korean coal ships had unloaded coal at Jintang port in northern China's Tangshan city.
It was not immediately clear what supplies the ship needed or the location of the port and Geng did not give any other details.
However, a coal trader with knowledge of the matter said that North Korean crew members on several ships have reported health issues since they have been living on the vessels for more than two months, receiving little medical attention.
The Chinese government also raised concerns on the safety of this ship after a North Korean cargo vessel sunk off China in March, the trader said.
Geng repeated that there had been no change to China's decision in February to ban all North Korean coal imports this year and that no coal had been imported from North Korea since then.
"I think unloading and importing are different," Geng added.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard and Meng Meng; Editing by Christian Schmollinger)