A U.S. Navy ship opened fire on a fishing boat off the coast of Dubai yesterday, killing a person aboard the vessel after it ignored warnings not to approach, U.S. officials said.
“An embarked security team aboard a U.S. Navy vessel fired upon a small motor vessel after it disregarded warnings and rapidly approached the U.S. ship,” Lt. Greg Raelson, a media officer for the U.S. Navy, said in an e-mail. The incident occurred at 2:50 p.m. local time yesterday, 10 miles off the port of Jebel Ali in the United Arab Emirates, he said.
The shooting happened near the Strait of Hormuz, where tensions have risen this year as Iranian officials threatened to shut down the waterway in response to increased U.S. and European pressure. Western sanctions on oil and other products aim to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons technology, a technology that Iran maintains it isn’t seeking.
The vessel fired on was a fishing boat whose owner was from the United Arab Emirates, according to Al Arabiya television. The fisherman who was killed and the three people injured were Indian, according to the U.A.E.’s WAM state news agency. The casualty figures were verified by a U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity because the incident is still being investigated.
The USNS Rappahannock issued warnings to the smaller vessel by voice, radio and light signals before firing, a U.S. official said. The vessel, a 41,000-ton fleet replenishment oiler operated by the U.S. Navy’s Sealift Command and staffed mostly by civilians, also carried a security team, the Navy said.
When the warnings failed, the security team “fired rounds from a .50-caliber machine gun,” Raelson said. The boat that was hit had approached to within 100 yards (91 meters) to 200 yards of the U.S. ship, according to another U.S. official, also speaking on condition of anonymity.
A investigation of the incident showed the boat didn’t receive a warning and was sailing on its rightful course, Abu Dhabi-based newspaper The National reported today, citing Dahi Khalfan, Dubai’s police chief. The shooting was a mistake, the newspaper cited him as saying.
The Pentagon has been beefing up its military presence in the region and yesterday said it is accelerating by four months the deployment of the John C. Stennis aircraft carrier group to the region. The ship’s arrival will mean the Navy will continue to operate two aircraft carriers and associated warships in the region. The Navy also has doubled the number of its counter-mine ships to eight to thwart any attempts to close the strait.
F-22 stealth fighters were deployed to a U.A.E. airbase close to the Strait of Hormuz in April, Aviation Weeks reported, which Iran’s Defense Minister Brigadier General Ahmad Vahidi described at the time as “useless and harmful.”
U.S. Navy ships are sensitive to being approached by other vessels, especially after the destroyer USS Cole was bombed by a suicide attack boat in Yemen in October 2000, Michael Eisenstadt, a Middle East specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said in a phone interview. The U.S. Navy shot down an Iranian passenger flight over the Persian Gulf in 1988, killing 290 people.
“You’ve the possibility of an al-Qaeda attack, and the effect is to put troops on very high alert,” Eisenstadt said.
There have been “very few incidents in memory in which we have ended up with the use of lethal or non-lethal fire,” Eisenstadt said. He cited an incident in January 2008 when Iranian fast boats approached within 500 yards of U.S. naval vessels without shots being fired.
Iranian naval activity and U.S. encounters with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps have been calm “in the last couple of months,” U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert said last month. Iranian naval conduct has been “professional and courteous, committing to the rules of the road,” he told reporters at the Pentagon.