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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — U.S. Navy sailors aboard a supply vessel acted within rules of engagement last year when they fired on a small boat approaching at high speed off Dubai, killing one Indian fisherman and wounding three others, according to a Navy investigation made public Monday.
The July 2012 incident has been described by Navy officials as “regrettable,” but it also highlighted the heightened security to protect vessels following boat-borne blasts such as the 2000 suicide attack on the USS Cole in Yemen that killed 17 U.S. sailors and the 2004 explosion of a dhow in the Persian Gulf that killed three crew members of the USS Firebolt.
The U.S. Navy 5th Fleet, based in Bahrain, has taken steps to expand security escorts for port-bound U.S. ships and worked with Gulf officials to distribute fliers in several languages — including Hindi, Urdu and others common among the region’s large South Asian labor force — advising to stay clear of Navy vessels.
There were initially conflicting accounts about whether the USNS Rappahannock, a refueling ship, used warning measures before opening fire on the 15-meter (50-foot) fishing boat, which the Navy said was approaching at speeds above 28 knots (32 mph).
But the Navy investigation said warning shots of .50-caliber tracers were fired as the skiff headed toward the bow of the Rappahannock, about 16 kilometers (10 miles) off Dubai’s Jebel Ali port. It also said crew members used a laser device to try to warn the fishing boat.
A gunner aboard the Rappahannock opened fire with the .50-caliber weapon moments before the order to begin “destructive fire” but was deemed within the bounds of “self-defense in response to a hostile act or demonstrated hostile intent,” the investigation said.
“If I did not fire, I didn’t know what kind of damage would have occurred on the ship,” the sailor was quoted in the investigation, but his name was blacked out in the copy made public.
The report estimated the fishing boat came within 23 meters (75 feet) of the Rappahannock.
“Due to the high speed and short distances, the entire event occurred in less than two minutes, limiting the ability of the ship to employ other warning methods,” said a Navy statement.
But it determined that the boat’s fast approach led security teams aboard the Rappahannock “to make a reasonable assessment that the boat represented an imminent threat and was demonstrating hostile intent” and the “use of force was appropriate.”
The U.S. has compensated the family of the Indian fisherman killed and given assistance to his three countrymen who were wounded.
But the incident brought diplomatic repercussions with both India and the United Arab Emirates.
Last year, Dubai’s police chief, Lt. Gen. Dahi Khalfan Tamim, said their initial investigation suggested the fishing boat was “in its right course and did not pose any danger” and described the shooting as an apparent mistake.
The Navy investigation was done without assistance from the UAE.