No Warning before Gulf Shooting, Say Fishermen

By Adam Schreck 18 July 2012

DUBAI—An Indian fisherman aboard a boat shot at by the US Navy off Dubai’s coast has told officials the crew received no warning before being fired upon, India’s ambassador to the United Arab Emirates said on Tuesday.

The account differs from that provided by the Navy, which said it resorted to lethal force on Monday only after issuing a series of warnings.

One Indian was killed in the incident, and three of his countrymen were seriously wounded. The shooting underscored how quickly naval encounters can escalate in the increasingly tense waters of the Gulf.

The shooting happened on Monday afternoon when a boat rapidly approached the refueling ship USNS Rappahannock about 10 miles (16 kilometers) off Dubai’s Jebel Ali port, according to the Navy.

The Navy said the boat’s crew disregarded warnings from the US vessel, and only then did gunners fire on it with a .50-caliber machine gun.

A description of the incident posted online by the US military indicates that a security team aboard the Rappahannock began issuing warnings as the boat headed toward it from about 900 yards (820 meters) away. Gunners opened fire when the boat closed in to about 100 yards (90 meters), according to the account.

The white-hulled, dark-bottomed boat appeared to be a civilian vessel powered by three outboard motors. It had no obvious military markings. The skiff was 50 feet (15 meters) long and carried no communications gear, according to the US military description.

Similar boats are used for fishing in the region, though Iran’s Revolutionary Guard also employs relatively small, fast-moving craft in the Gulf.

Indian consular officials have met with the wounded. Indian Ambassador M.K. Lokesh told The Associated Press on Tuesday that one of the survivors reported that the men were returning from fishing when they encountered the American ship.

“He says there was no warning” before the shooting occurred, Lokesh said, though he noted that authorities are still working to determine what happened. “We are waiting for the investigation to be complete.”

Guest workers from India and other South Asian countries have flocked to the Gulf for decades in search of well-paying jobs. Many are employed as low-skilled workers in industries such as fishing and construction.

Dubai’s police chief, Lt-Gen Dahi Khalfan Tamim, said an initial investigation suggests “the boat was in its right course and did not pose any danger,” according to comments published by Abu Dhabi-based daily The National. He told the government-backed newspaper that the shooting appeared to be a mistake.

Lokesh said the casualties are all from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Four other men—two Indians and two Emiratis—were unhurt because they were in the boat’s cabin, he said.

The three injured men are recovering in a Dubai hospital and are “out of danger,” the Indian ambassador added. It was not immediately possible to reach the fishermen directly.

The US ambassador to India, Nancy Powell, has expressed regret for the loss of life and assured Indian officials that the US government will conduct a full investigation.

India has separately asked the United Arab Emirates to investigate the incident, Indian External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna said on Tuesday.

Emirati and American officials both say they are investigating.

Lt Greg Raelson, a spokesman for the Navy’s Bahrain-based 5th Fleet, declined to say what types of warnings the Rappahannock’s crew issued before opening fire, though he said they acted in line with standard procedures.

“US ships have an inherent right to self-defense against potential threats. The US crew repeatedly attempted to warn the vessel’s operators to turn away from their deliberate approach,” he said.

The Gulf federation, which includes the commercial hub of Dubai and the oil-rich capital Abu Dhabi, is a key American ally in the Gulf. American warships frequently visit Jebel Ali port, a popular rest stop among US sailors.

Tensions are high in the Gulf after nearby Iran last week renewed threats to close the strategic Strait of Hormuz—the route for one-fifth of the world’s oil—in retaliation for tighter sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program.

In Tehran, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast used Monday’s incident to challenge the US over what he called a provocation in the Gulf, according to comments carried by the semi-official Fars news agency.

“The reason why we have repeatedly announced that the presence of foreign forces can threaten (the) security of the region is visible in the incidents that are happening,” he said at his weekly news conference.

“Any move or policy which can somehow endanger the security of this region or the security of energy supplies can threaten the interests of the regional countries,” he added.

The US recently boosted its naval presence in the Gulf with additional minesweepers and other warships. The Pentagon said Monday it is sending another aircraft carrier to the Middle East several months early to ensure it has two carriers continuously in the region.