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survivors deny us version of deadly attack on fishing vessel

DUBAI — Indian fishermen who survived a hail of gunfire from a US navy boat off the coast of the United Arab Emirates disputed US claims that their boat drew fire after ignoring warnings to steer clear of the American vessel.

One Indian was killed and three others injured yesterday when the USNS Rappahannock, a refuelling ship, fired on the fishing vessel, which the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet said approached at high speed and ignored repeated warnings.

The incident highlighted the potential for a rapid escalation of tensions in Gulf waters, where US forces are expanding their presence as Washington ramps up pressure on Iran over its nuclear programme.

The fishermen, hospitalised with gunshot wounds after the incident near Dubai’s Jebel Ali port, said today that they received no warning before the US craft opened fire, and that their craft had attempted to avoid any contact with it.

“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,” 28-year-old Muthu Muniraj told Reuters from hospital, his legs punctured by the rounds of the US craft’s .50-caliber gun.

“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.”

A Fifth Fleet spokesman, Lt. Greg Raelson, asked whether the identification of the craft as a fishing boat made the threat cited by the Navy less likely, said an internal inquiry into the incident had not finished.

“Non-lethal measures were taken while attempting to signal the vessel,” he said, adding that the fishing craft did not respond. “That was when the security team fired rounds from the .50-caliber … Our ships have an inherent right to self-defence against lethal threats.”

The United States has been particularly wary of attacks on its ships since two al Qaeda suicide bombers rammed an explosives-laden boat into the USS Cole in 2000, blowing a massive hole in its side and killing 17 US sailors. (Reuters)

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