US Deputy Secretary of State expresses 'deep regret' for Navy shooting

US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns has expressed deep regret over the shooting of a fishing boat by the US Navy ship USNS Rappahannock in Dubai, killing a fisherman and injuring three others.

USNS Rappahannock maintains station as it prepares a replenishment at sea in the South China Sea in March 2012.
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US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns has expressed deep regret over the shooting of a fishing boat by the US Navy ship USNS Rappahannock in Dubai, killing a fisherman and injuring three others.

In a phone conversation with Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Dr Anwar Mohammed Gargash, the US Deputy Secretary of State said that investigations into the causes of the incident are underway. He stressed that relations between the UAE and the US are strong.

For his part, Dr Gargash noted that there was agreement on the need to know the causes of the incident as well as for transparent cooperation between the two countries.

He further stressed that relations between the UAE and the US are strong.

Military agreements with the US could make it hard for UAE authorities to prosecute those involved in Monday’s shooting of a fishing boat by the US navy.

The USNS Rappahannock fired a .50-calibre machinegun at the Emirati-owned boat Tharath 10 miles from the coast in UAE waters, killing one fisherman and injuring three others.

The US navy said it had followed procedure in issuing warnings before shooting, but the crew of the Tharath claimed no warning was given.

The chief of Dubai Police said an investigation had already begun.

“It occurred in UAE territory so it is the UAE legal system that will take up the case and the investigators will be from the UAE,” said Theodore Karasik, director of research and development at the security consultancy Inegma.

Lt Greg Raelson, a spokesman for the US navy’s Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, confirmed the USNS Rappahannock was in UAE waters.

When asked if the UAE police and courts had jurisdiction to try the incident as a crime, Lt Raelson said: “It is UAE waters and that is how we will say it.”

This is the second time marines have shot and killed fishermen this year.

In the first case, two Italian marines on the Enrica Lexie off Kerala’s coast killed two Indian fishermen on February 15.

India’s high court in Kerala ruled in May that the two marines were liable to be prosecuted for murder under Indian law.

But in the UAE’s case, a defence pact signed with the US on July 25, 1994 could complicate matters. The text of the agreement is classified, but a UAE Congress Report from 2008 suggests the agreement included a Status of Forces Agreement (Sofa).

Joseph Trevithick, a research associate at the US defence and security information website, said: “A Sofa is only one of many sorts of agreements that might exist between the US and any country they maintain a security presence in.

“But I would agree it is likely a Sofa would exists between the US and UAE.

“Every one of these agreements is unique, but a common component of all of them is that it is up to the US government whether a serviceman would even be released to the local authorities for questioning during an incident like this, let alone prosecution.”

View USNS Rappahanock incident, July 16, 2012 in a larger map

Lt Gen Dahi Khalfan Tamim, the chief of Dubai Police, yesterday said prosecutors had begun their investigation but that US officials were not detained or questioned.

“Our investigation shows that the [Emirati] ship was on its right course and it stopped when it saw the navy vessel,” Gen Tamim said. “It tried to change route so it wouldn’t look like it was attacking.

“That should have given the navy a clear indication that it wasn’t dangerous. Whoever made the decision to shoot made a clear misjudgment.”

But Lt Raelson maintained lethal force was used after the fishing boat failed to respond to repeated warnings and continued to rapidly approach the naval ship.

“The sailors and the security team used a series of non-lethal, pre-planned measures to warn the vessel before using lethal force,” Lt Raelson said, while declining to specify the navy’s rules of engagement.

“The safety of our vessel and personnel is of utmost importance to us. They have an inherent right to self-defence.”

Dubai’s fishermen say they are well aware of the warning signs issued by a navy vessel.

“If we go close to a navy or military vessel, they will sound their horn,” said M Tirunavukarasu, a friend of A Sekar, 29, the fisherman who died in the incident. Mr Tirunavukarasu is a fishermen with seven years’ experience.

“At night, they will send flares into the sky and shine lights,” he said. “Sometimes, they will switch them on and off to send signals to another boat. It would mean the other boat has to wait and let it pass. Or the boat will have to cross the ship in the direction the light is shone.”

Mr Karasik said the UAE case was further complicated by tensions within the Arabian Gulf region.

“The boat may have been trying to make it back to shore but its movements may have made it suspicious,” he said.

“In the past, small boats that were from Iran have harassed US navy ships. And because of the heightened tensions, if a small boat is approaching a US navy ship and does not heed any warnings there will be consequences.

“In this particular case there seems to be a lot of miscommunication because of the Iranian threats and also because of Somali piracy.”

* Additional reporting by Preeti Kannan