Beijing: Amid stepped up security, China on Saturday launched joint patrols with Laos, Myanmar and Thailand to maintain security along the Mekong River, a major transport passage in the South East Asian region that had been suspended since deadly attacks on Chinese cargo ships in October.

Escorted by five joint patrol boats, ten cargo vessels set sail from the Guanlei Port in China's southwest Yunnan province.

The patrol boats are equipped with heavy machine guns and 10 cm-thick protective walls, while the police officers are equipped with automatic rifles and bullet-proof life jackets.

The launch ceremony on Saturday firmed up China's grip on the key inter-state river transportation that had been suspended since deadly attacks on Chinese cargo ships on October 5 in which 13 sailors were killed.

China has selected more than 200 officers from the country's border police force to form a special police team for the joint patrols along the Mekong River.

"With the protection, the resumption is a new starting point for the international shipping on the Mekong River," said He Jingtao, vice director of Xishuangbanna's maritime bureau.

The Mekong River, known in China as the Lancang River, rises on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and flows through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam before spilling into the South China Sea.

The river plays a crucial economic role throughout the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS). It also serves as a major bond of the economic cooperation between China and the GMS nations and one of the key transport passages in the China-ASEAN free trade zone.

The river, however, has witnessed rise in smuggling of drugs, weapons and ammunition, and attacks on boats over the past couple of years.

The headquarters for the initiative was established in Xishuangbanna, while liaison offices were set up in the other three countries on Friday to share intelligence and coordinate operations.

Joint police patrols are expected to help restore shipping services, protect the safety of passengers and vessels, as well as reduce crimes along the river, Meng Hongwei, China's vice minister of public security, said on Friday.

The four nations also sought to further build a long-term mechanism on joint patrol cooperation to crackdown on crimes and safeguard social order in the Mekong River region, the Ministry of Public Security said in a statement.

(Agencies)