WASHINGTON — A U.S. Navy fuel-resupply ship that had just passed through the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf opened fire at a 50-foot fishing boat moving toward it, killing one person and wounding three others, U.S. officials said.
A security team aboard the Rappahannock, which refuels warships, fired a .50-caliber machine gun Monday after the smaller boat “disregarded warnings and rapidly approached” about 10 miles off Jebel Ali port in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, according to the Navy’s 5th Fleet, which is based in nearby Bahrain.
U.S. officials said the incident was under investigation by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and Dubai police. But as details emerged, it appeared the fishing boat had been heading into port and had strayed too close to a Navy ship on high alert, rather than attempting an attack.
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The incident highlighted the rising tensions between the U.S. and Iran over the narrow strait, a choke point for much of the world’s oil shipments from the Middle East. Navy vessels are on special alert for small craft, which Iran has used to shadow and sometimes harass ships in the Gulf, and have permission to use lethal force to halt boats that draw too close.
In October 2000, Al-Qaida suicide bombers set off a rubber boat packed with explosives beside the Cole, a guided-missile destroyer, killing 17 sailors, while it was refueling in the Yemen port of Aden. Sailors aboard the Cole did not have permission to open fire in port unless fired upon first, a rule the Navy changed after the attack.
U.S. officials said the Rappahannock was heading into Jebel Ali when crew members saw the smaller boat heading toward it from about 1,200 yards away. A civilian crew sails the Rappahannock, but a Navy security team is aboard to protect the ship.
“The U.S. crew repeatedly attempted to warn the vessel’s operators to turn away from their deliberate approach,” a Navy statement said.
U.S. officials said the fishermen ignored warnings by radio, loudspeakers and flashing lights before the Navy security team opened fire. In addition to the four casualties, who were Indian citizens, two people aboard the boat from the United Arab Emirates were not injured.
The Pentagon also announced Monday that it was sending the aircraft carrier John C. Stennis to the Middle East four months early, which will keep two U.S. carriers and their escort ships in the Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf into next year. By sailing early, the Stennis will be able to replace the departing Enterprise later this year, a naval official said.
A second aircraft carrier, the Eisenhower, recently went through the Suez Canal and is being replaced in the Arabian Sea by the Abraham Lincoln.
The U.S. has built up air, sea and land forces in and near the Persian Gulf since last year to deter any Iranian attempts to close the strategic strait, and to be in position if conflict breaks out over Iran’s nuclear development program.
Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations, said last month that Iran’s navy recently has avoided confrontations with American ships in the Gulf, calling their behavior “professional and courteous.” But other U.S. officials warned of danger from the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Iran’s paramilitary force, which operates missile-launching speedboats.