NEW DELHI -- The U.S. Embassy in India expressed condolences Tuesday after an American naval vessel in the Persian Gulf opened fire on a small fishing vessel, killing an Indian and wounding three others. India has called on the United Arab Emirates, in whose waters the shooting took place, to investigate.
In a statement, the embassy said the U.S. was launching its own investigation, but suggested the use of force was justified given that the small motorized vessel was approaching the Rappahannock supply ship at a rapid pace and failed to heed several warnings to turn away.
Lt. Greg Raelson, a public affairs official with the U.S. 5th Fleet in Bahrain, said he couldn’t say whether the warnings were in English, Arabic or another language. But he said the Rappahannock's crew issued a “series of non-lethal warnings” as part of routine efforts to protect themselves. He declined to predict how long an investigation might take.
The U.S. Navy has been wary of small boats getting too close to warships since the October 2000 suicide attack against the destroyer Cole in Yemen that killed 17 sailors and injured 39.
Media reports suggested that the fishing vessel hit by the Rappahannock’s 50-caliber machine gun fire Monday afternoon was about 30 feet long, with three outboard engines and a crew of four Indians and two United Arab Emirates nationals.
The shooting took place just outside the Strait of Hormuz near Jebel Ali port. Iran has threatened to block international shipping through the strait in retaliation for economic sanctions imposed because of its nuclear program.
Amid mounting tensions, U.S. officials said this week they would send the aircraft carrier John Stennis, to the Persian Gulf region about four months ahead of schedule, both as a hedge against Iran and to support combat air operations in Afghanistan. Approximately 40% of the world's seaborne oil exports passes through the Strait of Hormuz.
Indian fishermen have found themselves in the cross-fire of anti-piracy and counterterrorism operations lately. This week’s incident follows one in February in which two Indian fisherman were shot to death off the coast of India by an Italian cargo vessel that mistook them for pirates, creating diplomatic tension between the two nations.
Recent killings of fishermen in “freak incidents” are a matter of great concern, said Julian Teeler, deputy head of Trivandrum’s South Indian Federation of Fishermen Societies trade group. His organization plans to warn its members to be more vigilant and maintain a wider perimeter around large official-looking vessels, he said.
-- Mark Magnier
Photo: The U.S. Navy supply ship Rappahannock in a file photo. Credit: MC3 Jacob D. Moore / U.S. Navy Visual News Service/EPA