In harms way

Published : Aug 24, 2012 00:00 IST

Muthu Muniraj, one of the three Indians who were injured when their fishing boat came under fire by a U.S. Navy supply ship, in a hospital in Dubai.-JUMANA EL HELOUEH/REUTERS

Muthu Muniraj, one of the three Indians who were injured when their fishing boat came under fire by a U.S. Navy supply ship, in a hospital in Dubai.-JUMANA EL HELOUEH/REUTERS

The killing of an Indian fisherman off the Dubai coast illustrates the aggressive instances of the U.S. naval build-up in Irans neighbourhood.

THE shooting of an Indian fisherman by armed personnel aboard a United States Navy supply ship in the waters off the coast of Dubai is another illustration of the trigger-happy disposition of the Barack Obama administration. The U.S. has been continuing with its military build-up in the Persian Gulf region from the beginning of the year as it seeks to confront Iran. The American army has been virtually deployed in the area around the strategic Strait of Hormuz, which is a vital shipping lane for international commerce.

The shooting, which took place in the second week of July, resulted in the death of Arumugam Sekhar, a young man hailing from Periyapattinam in Ramanathapuram district of Tamil Nadu. He, like millions of his compatriots in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), was earning a livelihood as a fisherman for a Dubai-based company. Three other fishermen, also from Tamil Nadu, were seriously injured when their tiny boat came under fire from USNS Rappahannock, 16 km off the UAE port of Jebel Ali and 35 km south-west of Dubai. The Jebel Ali port is the seventh busiest port in the world, with a lot of commercial traffic either heading towards it or leaving it at any given time.

A U.S. Navy spokesman wasted no time in claiming that the boat had disregarded non-lethal warnings and rapidly approached the U.S. ship. The surviving fishermen, who included two UAE nationals, denied the U.S. version of the incident and said that they were fired upon with heavy calibre weapons without warning. The UAE authorities have said that the fishing boat was well within the countrys maritime borders. Dubais police chief, Dahi Khalfan Tamim, told the media that the primary investigation confirms that the boat was in its right course and did not pose any danger. The shooting was clearly a mistake. He added that preliminary investigations had shown that the fishing vessel had received no warning from the U.S. ship.

Muthu Muniraj, one of the survivors, told Reuters: 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. We know warning sounds and signs, and there were none. It was very sudden. The U.S. Navy spokesman claimed that the naval fleet deployed in the Gulf had an inherent right to self-defence against lethal threats.

The survivors of the attack told the media that the ship quickly sailed away leaving the bullet-ridden boat and the injured to their fate. Nicholas Davis, who heads a private firm providing maritime security, told the media that the U.S. ship had enough time to launch a fast intercept boat to stop the fishing boat before it came too close to the ship. He emphasised that there was no real threat from either terror outfits or pirates in an area so close to the Dubai coast.

The Indian Ambassador to the UAE, M.K. Lokesh, said that the fishermen involved in the incident told him that the U.S. ship had given no warning before opening fire. But he hastened to add that there are many versions of the incident. We have to wait for details to emerge.

On February 15, two Indian fishermen were killed off the Kerala coast when their boat came under fire from an Italian merchant ship. The two Italian marines responsible for the deaths are now facing trial in an Indian court. But in the latest incident, the Indian government seems to have accepted the U.S. claim that its navy acted in self-defence and given it the benefit of the doubt. Neither India nor the UAE has lodged a strong diplomatic protest with the U.S.

External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna merely described the incident as unfortunate, while noting that the UAE authorities had taken the matter to the local court and are proceeding according to the laws of the country.

The Dubai police are treating the case as that of murder. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa has sought the intervention of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, requesting that he take up the issue with Washington. She wants the Indian government to demand compensation for the families of the fishermen concerned. As the dead and injured were innocent fishermen who were conducting fishing in the sea only for their livelihood, please ensure that justice is rendered, she wrote in her letter to the Prime Minister.

An American commentator, Daniel McAdams, wrote that one Indian fisherman was killed and three were injured because they chose to fish in the Persian Gulf that is increasingly crowded with U.S. warships, amped up, trigger-happy and ready to start World War III.

The U.S. armed forces have a long and proven track record of shooting first and asking questions later. There have been many such recent instances in Iraq and Afghanistan. In earlier wars in Korea and Vietnam, American troops were responsible for even more horrendous crimes. Some reports in the U.S. media said that the navys action against the UAE-owned fishing vessel was a warning to Iran and non-state actors such as Al Qaeda to stay away from U.S. ships. The Gulf of Tonkin incident (the confrontation involving North Vietnam and the U.S. in the Gulf of Tonkin in the North Vietnamese territorial waters on August 2, 1964, in which USS Maddox engaged three North Vietnamese Navy torpedo boats in a sea battle) staged by the U.S. was the prelude to the Vietnam War in the 1960s.

The suicide-boat attack on USS Cole, a U.S. Navy Destroyer, in Aden in 2000 is the reason being given for the hypersensitivity being displayed by the Obama administration on the high seas. Since 2000, we have been very concerned about small boats, a Pentagon official said after the Dubai incident. The anti-piracy campaign, which is now being spearheaded by Western navies, has given a carte blanche to marines and other armed personnel on board merchant ships to open fire on suspicious-looking boats or ordinary fishermen. The Italian marines involved in the killing of the Kerala fishermen allegedly mistook their victims for Somali pirates.

With the Pentagon announcing plans in mid-July to further reinforce the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf, the chances of other fishing boats getting into harms way will only increase. An additional aircraft carrier, USS John C. Stennis, has been deployed, along with more fighter jets. The U.S. is using F-22 fighter jets in the region. Two other aircraft carriers, USS Enterprise and Abraham Lincoln, are already in the Persian Gulf. A fourth one, USS Eisenhower, is also on its way to the Gulf. The U.S. Navy has started a mine-sweeping exercise in the area deploying many more ships for the exercise. The situation could spin out of control if an Iranian fishing boat or a naval patrol boat comes in the U.S line of fire in the Persian Gulf.

Iran considers the presence of the U.S. military in the Persian Gulf as a hostile and illegitimate act in the first place. According to Finian Cunningham, a specialist on the region, the attack on the UAE fishing boat not only raises questions about criminal disregard for civilian life but it also points out to the Pentagons reckless militarisation of the strategic waterway. Before the killing of the Indian fishermen, the U.S. Navy had put its personnel on hair-trigger alert to respond to alleged threats.

Washington is no longer interested in finding a diplomatic solution to the long-running impasse with Iran. The last round of talks between the P5+1 (five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council France, China, U.S., United Kingdom, Russia plus Germany) and Iran held in Moscow in June ended in failure with Teheran refusing to concede the Wests demand that it end its 20 per cent uranium enrichment plan and ship its existing stockpile out of the country. Iran was willing to concede some of the key demands provided the West was prepared to ease up its sanctions. Because of the sanctions, the Iranian currency has depreciated drastically and inflation is impacting on the lives of ordinary Iranians.

Oil exports had contributed to 80 per cent of the governments public revenues. India, Japan, South Korea and China have all cut their oil imports from Iran under pressure from the U.S. India until recently was Irans second largest customer. Now it has slipped to the third place. South Korea and Japan completely stopped their oil imports from Iran in July.

The latest European Union sanctions have deprived Iranian ships of insurance cover. Companies in Europe dominate the maritime insurance business. For Iran, sanctions constitute an undeclared war.

The Obama administration, with regime change in mind, is no longer offering any carrots to the Iranian government as it slowly but surely tries to strangle the Iranian economy. Teheran, from all available indications, seems prepared to defend its sovereign rights. The Iranian Central Banks Governor, Mahmoud Bahmani, said that his country had $150 billion in foreign currency reserves. This will help Iran weather the current round of draconian sanctions.

Iran has now drafted a Bill that will stop the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz to countries that have imposed sanctions on it. Iran wants to send a signal to the international community that it has the power to make sanctions bite both ways. Much of the oil flowing through the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf is bound for Western markets, especially Europe. Thirty-five per cent of the worlds maritime oil exports pass through the strait. Any disruption of supplies will precipitate a steep hike in oil prices and can deal a death blow to the faltering European economies.

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