(Published in The New Indian Express, Student Edition, on 6 August 2012, retrieved from http://newindianexpress.com/education/school/article583539.ece)
On July 16, one Indian fisherman was killed and three wounded when a US Navy ship fired at their boat as they were fishing off the coast of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
The fishermen told media they were not given any warning before the US Navy opened machinegun fire. The US claims the boat ignored multiple warnings and sped on towards the ship. Both India and the US are simultaneously investigating the incident.
With the US expanding the number of military bases it has in the Gulf, especially in the area surrounding Iran, this incident has raised concerns about the high-handedness of its Armed Forces.
What exactly happened?
Six Indians and two Emiratis were on board the fishing boat, returning from trawling in the waters off Jebel Ali, when the security team of US Navy refuelling ship Rappahannock opened fire on them.
One Indian fisherman – A Sekar – was killed, and three were wounded – N Panduvanathan, K Muthukannan and R Muthumuniraj. The other four crew members were in the cabin when the firing broke out, and escaped injury. The wounded are all out of danger.
The US claimed the security team on board the navy vessel fired rounds from a .50 calibre machine gun only after their warnings were ignored. The US military says the crew on the Rappahannock began issuing warnings when the boat was about 900 yards, or 820 metres, away, and opened fire only when it had closed in at 100 yards (90 metres).
This account has been refuted by the fishermen. Dubai’s police chief, Lt. Gen. Dahi Khalfan Tamim, has told the media an initial investigation indicates the boat posed no threat, and that the US was at fault for shooting at the men.
Why did the US shoot at the vessel?
Twelve years ago, there was a suicide attack from a small boat on the US navy destroyer USS Cole. The US military said it was concerned that this could be one such.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guard uses small, fast-moving boats in the Gulf waters. However, this boat had no obvious military markings, and the US Navy seems to have had no plausible reason for opening fire. Boats of the same kind are used for fishing in the region quite regularly.
The UAE has rejected the US military’s claim that the incident occurred 48 km off the coast of Dubai, saying the fishing vessel was only 16 km away from Jebel Ali port.
How has India reacted?
Foreign Minister SM Krishna called the incident “unfortunate” and said the issue has been taken up with the United States.
While the US embassy in New Delhi has conveyed its regret and condolences, politicians in Tamil Nadu have demanded that the navy men be brought to book. Chief Minister Jayalalithaa has called for a detailed probe into the incident, and also asked Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to ensure the families of the fishermen are paid “due compensation”. For her part, she’s announced a solatium of Rs 5 lakh to Sekar’s family, and Rs 50,000 each to the wounded.
What’s happening now?
Dubai authorities say they are treating the incident as murder, caused by “the action of an irresponsible soldier”, who misjudged the intentions of the boat. The probe has become a little more complicated now, as USNS Rappahannock has since left UAE territorial waters and is now in international waters.
The US has announced that two parallel investigations have been ordered into the incident. While officials have conveyed their regret, there has been no apology from America. Instead, they have stressed the “real security concerns” they have in “this dangerous part of the world.”
Why does the US have bases in UAE?
It is thought that the US has been setting up base in various parts of the Middle East to keep an eye on Iran, whose nuclear empowerment is a concern for the US. However, long before this, the US had bases in the region, even before the First Gulf War (1990-91).
Obviously, the presence of US military increased tremendously during the wars in Afghanistan (from 2001) and Iraq (from 2003).
Aside from facilitating easy movement of troops and supplies in case of a “situation”, experts believe the bases are also to secure oil resources, and to look out for threats to Israel from Arab nations.
The US military has maintained that it has more altruistic intentions. In 2002, Rear Admiral Craig R Quigley, senior spokesman at US Central Command in Tampa, Florida, said, “There is great value, for instance, in continuing to build airfields in a variety of locations on the perimeter of Afghanistan that, over time, can do a variety of functions, like combat operations, medical evacuation and delivering humanitarian assistance.”
The UAE is one of the states in the Middle East that is friendly to the US, and relations between the two nations have been good ever since the Gulf War. They signed a Defence Cooperation Agreement in 1994. Since 1997, the US increased the length of deployments at one of its crucial bases in the UAE, Al Dhafra air base, from 90 days to 120 days, and installed a state-of-the-art recreation centre for its troops.
WHAT DO THEY SAY?
Muthumuniraj (28-year old fishermen whose legs were shot): “We had no warning at all from the ship, we were speeding up to try and go around them and then suddenly we got fired at. We know warning signs and sounds and there were none. It was very sudden. My friend was killed, he’s gone. I don’t understand what happened.”
Muthukannan (35-year old fisherman shot in the abdomen and leg): “We were fishing and then on the way back they started shooting at us, so many shots, like a storm.”
Panduvanathan (26-year old fishermen wounded in the attack): “This is not the first time we’re going out in the boat and we all know what a warning is.”
Dubai police chief Dahi Khalfan Tamim: “The primary investigation confirms that the boat was in its right course and did not pose any danger. The shooting was clearly a mistake.”
US Defence officials: “The vessel disregarded non-lethal warnings and rapidly approached the US ship.”
US BASES ACROSS THE WORLD
· Of the 1.4 million soldiers in the US Armed Forces, 350,000 serve in over 130 foreign countries. Many of these are in the Middle East.
· The US has more than 750 bases across the world.
· Al Dhafra Air Base is one of the largest installations, about an hour’s drive from Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE. In addition to refuelling facilities, it also serves as a station for Operation Southern Watch, a coalition force that monitors air and ground operations in Southern Iraq.
· The Jebel Ali port, near which this shooting took place, is a base at which the US Navy makes about 200 calls a year.