India has indicated it is dissatisfied with the United States Navy’s clean chit to its sailors who, in July last fired on a fishing boat off the coast of Dubai, killing Arumugam Sekar and injuring three others, all from Tamil Nadu.
Given a heavily redacted probe report through informal channels, India awaits a full report and until then wants the trial in the United Arab Emirates — where a case was registered after the shooting — to go on.
All that the U.S. Navy has reportedly done so far is give small amounts to the kin of the deceased and to the injured. Officially, India is yet to receive investigation reports from both the U.S. and the UAE. “Once these reports are received, we will decide on further steps,” said sources in the government.
A U.S. Navy report cited the failure of the boat to alter its course despite the firing of warning shots as one of the grounds for exonerating its personnel. But this claim was contested by one of the injured, Pandu Sanadhan. He denied that the American warship fired warning shots. “This is not the first time for us to go out in the boat and we all know what a warning is,” the 26-year-old said.
From his hospital bed at Dubai’s Jebel Ali port, Muthu Muniraj — injured in the legs in the machinegun fire — told Reuters the fishing boat crew “had [received] no warning at all from the ship.”
The U.S. Navy report concluded that its sailors were innocent because USNS Rappahannock had abided by the appropriate rules of engagement while firing at the small boat approaching the ship at high speed. The “use of force was appropriate” as the smaller 15-metre boat was deemed a threat, it said.
But Mr. Muniraj said his boat was “speeding up [only] to try and go around them [the U.S. ship] and then suddenly we got fired at.”
The U.S. Navy’s probe seemed to fully endorse its controversial initial response that the naval vessel had fired upon a small motor vessel “after it disregarded warnings and rapidly approached the U.S. ship.” “In accordance with Navy force protection procedures, sailors on USNS Rappahannock (T-AO 204) used a series of non-lethal, pre-planned responses to warn the vessel before resorting to lethal force.” The U.S. crew had “repeatedly attempted to warn the vessel’s operators to turn away from their deliberate approach before firing .50-calibre machine gun rounds.”
In India, the tragedy invoked perceptions of American high-handedness and led to demands for an apology. The Pentagon expressed “regret” over the incident, and the western media added context to the use of force by citing the USS Cole incident of 2000, in which American crew members failed to take timely action to stop an explosives-laden boat from smashing into the warship, killing 17 personnel on board.
In Delhi, the U.S. Embassy once again offered its condolences to the victim’s family and reiterated the Navy’s version that the boat’s apparent collision course and failure to respond to attempts to warn it represented an imminent threat. The embassy said the entire event occurred in less than two minutes, limiting the ability of the ship to employ other warning methods. But it felt the tragedy should trigger a rethink on how to handle such issues. One way could be exploring the use of different warning devices to communicate when small boats are perceived as a threat.
Five Indians, including the three injured, left for home in Tamil Nadu on February 24.