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.
View USNS Rappahanock incident, July 16, 2012 in a larger map
A timeline of events released yesterday morning by US Central Command says the Rappahannock first became aware of what it called a "contact of interest" at 2.50pm on Monday afternoon. The fishing boat was travelling at about 20 to 25 knots as it headed towards the American ship, which was unaware of its identity or purpose.
Within 60 seconds, the Americans say the vessel approached to within 1,000 metres, before turning directly towards the Rappahannock. At 2.51pm, the security team began the first of what the US military calls "defensive, non-lethal warning procedures". According to the US navy, the fishing boat continued towards it, leading to a further warning.
With the Emirati vessel now just 137 metres away, the Rappahannock opened fire. As the damaged fishing craft passed from behind, further warnings were issued. Almost at once, the fishing boat stopped completely and the American ship departed the scene at full speed. The smaller craft then moved off. The entire incident had lasted less than three minutes.
On board the Tharath, Kumaresan, 23, felt the first bullet go past him but then watched as another member of the crew, A Sekar, fell to the deck, mortally wounded. "I immediately took cover behind a seat," he said.
"Sekar died on the spot and the others were injured. They kept shooting for about five minutes. Our owner said not to worry and that we will go to the hospital quickly. I gave water to the injured men, who were in severe pain."
With his craft riddled with bullet holes and more than half his crew lying blood-splattered on decks, the Tharath's Emirati owner and captain, whose name has not been disclosed, headed back to port at Jumeirah, arriving about half an hour after the shooting.
As police rushed to the scene and helicopters lifted the wounded men to Rashid Hospital, one onlooker, Sudhakar, was shocked to find the dead man was his friend. "Sekar was lying dead on the boat with his stomach badly ruptured," he said. "It was a ghastly scene."
Syed Ali, who only that morning had supplied ice to the Tharath before it left port, described two men rushing ashore after the boat docked. "They were screaming and shouting, alerting everyone about the incident. Soon the police arrived at the scene and took the injured men to the hospital."
"I can't believe he is no more," he said of Sekar. "We used to drink and dance together. He used to love movies. We were good friends."
The dead man, Mr Ali said, was planning to return to India to get married. "His marriage was fixed by his parents and he was planning to tie the knot in three months. It is sad he is dead."
Investigators continued to piece together the moments before and after the incident yesterday, seeking to get to the bottom of what happened and ensure it is not repeated.
The wounded crew were recovering last night in Rashid Hospital. All six men are from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu and had come to Dubai at the same time.
Mr Muniraj, who was married recently and lives with other fishermen in Jumeirah, said his family knew nothing of what had happened. Another bullet scraped his left leg during the gunfire. Now he hopes only that he will be able to walk again soon.
"They told me that if I can't move my toes, they'll have to amputate. But thankfully I can lift them a little now."
Graphic: The US Navy version