DUBAI // UAE authorities and the US navy are both examining the circumstances under which an armed American naval oil-supply vessel opened fire with a heavy machinegun on a fishing boat returning to port with six Indian crew and two Emiratis. One fisherman, A Sekar, 29, was shot dead. Three others – Muthu Muniraj, 28, Muthu Kannan, 40, and Pandu Sanadhan, 26 – were injured. The four others were unhurt.
US navy officials said the USNS Rappahannock resorted to lethal force only after issuing repeated warnings to the crew of the Emirati-registered Tharath, and that the fishermen disregarded the warnings and rapidly approached the US ship.
The fishing boat survivors said the American ship opened fire without warning. Muthu Muniraj, 28, who was shot in the right leg, said: “We saw the boat from far.
“When we came close, we slowed down to let them pass to avoid any accidents. Once we crossed them from behind, they started firing at us. Usually, we know alarms and sirens are sounded by ships. But there were no warnings.”
The US Embassy in New Delhi expressed its condolences to the families of the crew.
For the crew on the deck of the fishing vessel Tharath on Monday, it was a chance to enjoy the sea breezes at the end of a long day hauling in their weekly catch.
The 30-metre boat had been at sea since 7am, escaping the suffocating heat of a Dubai summer. Now it cruised 19 kilometres parallel to the port of Jebel Ali. Few of the six-man Indian crew paid much attention to the huge grey ship steaming directly in front of them into the Arabian Gulf.
It took a few seconds to turn a pleasant afternoon cruise into a scene of horror. As the fishing boat turned to pass behind the bigger ship, it was raked with bullets from a powerful .50 calibre heavy machinegun mounted on the deck of the other vessel.
The circumstances behind what the US navy calls the “USNS Rappahannock Incident” are still unclear, with the fishermen offering conflicting accounts from those by American authorities. All that can be said with any certainty is that when the shooting stopped, one fisherman was dead and three others lay injured following a catastrophic breakdown in communication.
According to the fishermen, the bullets began to fly without warning. “There were just lots of bullets coming at us,” said one of the men, Murugan, 40, who escaped unhurt. “We are not sure how we survived. If the US navy had given us some warning signals, we would have been more careful.”
Muthu Muniraj was less lucky, and was wounded in his right leg. He says the US navy started firing at them after their boat crossed the USNS Rappahannock and was heading towards the shore.
“We saw the boat from far,” said Mr Muniraj. “When we came close, we slowed down to let them pass to avoid any accidents. Once we crossed them from behind, they started firing at us.
“Usually, we know alarms and sirens are sounded by ships. But there were no warnings.”
The US account of what happened on Monday afternoon in UAE territorial waters is more clinical, but also runs counter to the fishermen’s claims. The Rappahannock is a 31,000-tonne refuelling ship attached to the navy’s Military Sealift Command, which replenishes American ships on active duty. Her crew are civilians, but entering areas of high risk such as the Arabian Gulf – with the constant threat of Iranian fast-attack craft – the US places on board what it calls an Embarked Security Team of service personnel, in this case armed with heavy machineguns.