This is not how to treat an ally. Survivors aboard an Indian fishing vessel claim they had received no warning before being fired upon by the U.S. Navy on Monday, the Indian press reported. Several news outlets have quoted M.K. Lokesh, the Indian ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, as saying that—contrary to American insistence that several warnings were issued before the USNS Rappahannock opened fire on the vessel—survivors said they were taken by surprise. Said Lokesh: “There are many versions of the incident. We have to wait for the details to emerge.”
To get those details, India says that it has opened a “full investigation into the circumstances” in the UAE into the July 16 incident in which the naval oil-supply vessel fired shots on a small fishing boat off the coast of Dubai, killing a 29-year-old Indian fishermen and injuring three more. The rest of the crew – two Indians and two Emiratis – were uninjured. In a statement released on Tuesday, the Indian government said: “We are deeply saddened by the loss of life of the Indian fisherman and the injuries sustained by the others. Our thoughts are with their families.” All of the Indian crew were from the southern state of Tamil Nadu. Millions of Indians currently work in the Gulf region.
The U.S. Embassy in New Delhi also issued condolences “to the families of the crew of a small motor vessel, which came under fire from the USNS Rappahannock on July 16, after the vessel disregarded non-lethal warnings and rapidly approached the U.S. ship.” The press release, issued the day after the incident, added that the U.S. was conducting its own investigation into the incident. It was no apology. The U.S. says that its resupply ship opened fire after issuing repeated warnings to a small vessel that was rapidly approaching it, interpreting the behavior as aggressive. The UAE-based National interviewed one of the injured fisherman, who was shot in the leg, who told the paper: “When we came close, we slowed down to let [the USNS Rappahannock] 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 incident could call into question the efficacy of emergency communication between large and small vessels on the high seas. The shooting follows a similar incident in February, in which Italian marines on a commercial vessel opened fire on Indian fishermen, thinking they were pirates. Two fishermen were killed in that incident. Then, too, the Italians said that the crew of the small boat did not heed multiple warnings before they were compelled to open fire, bringing into question whether the boats were aware of or had the technology to receive the warnings that were issued. Those kinds of details are likely to emerge from the multiple probes into this week’s event. The U.S. has told India it will share the results of its own investigation.
The two incidents also highlight broadening maritime tensions in different parts of the world. Though piracy has been on the decline in the first half of 2012, commercial ships remain on high alert as rogue ships continue to pose a threat to crews throughout the Indian Ocean and, increasingly, in the Gulf of Guinea off Africa’s west coast.
The USNS Rappahannock, which is manned by a civilian crew but had Navy personnel on board, was traveling near the narrow Strait of Hormuz, the site through which a large portion of the world’s oil moves and where tensions are running high between the U.S. and Iran. Iran has threatened to block shipments through the strait in retaliation for international oil sanctions, aimed at staunching its nuclear program, and Navy vessels have reportedly been on alert for small ships in the area that might be sent by Iran to shadow its vessels. Twelve years ago, the U.S.S. Cole was attacked by a suicide bomber manning a small boat off the Yemeni port of Aden, killing 17 soldiers. At the time, the Navy did not have permission to open fire on boats while in port. Today, they do. “We are post-Cole mindset. The rules of engagement have changed,” analyst Walid Phares told Fox News. “The problem,” he rightly points out, is that as tensions with Iran may increase in the area, “there are thousands of these boats.” And likely many harmless sailors caught in the crosshairs of an overzealous soldier’s gun.