SHARJAH, United Arab Emirates — A U.S. Navy frigate mistook an unarmed Emirates fishing skiff for an Iranian gunboat when it fired upon the vessel Sunday evening, killing an Indian crew member, witnesses and shipping officials said Tuesday.
"It was not an Iranian gunboat they attacked. It was one of our fishing boats, and one of the three crew members was killed," said an authoritative shipping official. Another shipping source labeled the attack "stupid" and "tragic."
Most of those interviewed would not allow their names to be used, with one official citing the Emirates government's extreme sensitivity over the incident. But all gave similar accounts. They included a crewman aboard the 30-foot-long fishing boat, the Al Hudei, and the employer of the victim, who was identified by hospital sources as Jagadeh Baghadan, 26, of Gujarat, India.
Shortly After Nightfall
The incident occurred shortly after nightfall Sunday near the Iranian-held island of Abu Musa in the southern Persian Gulf, northwest of the Emirates port of Sharjah, as the guided missile frigate Carr was escorting an American cargo ship out of the gulf.
The Pentagon said the Carr fired at a "suspected Iranian gunboat" when it failed to heed warnings to stop and continued an "apparently hostile run" toward the cargo ship, the MV Patriot.
According to the Pentagon, the Patriot was approached by three suspected Iranian craft: a dhow and two "Boston whaler-type" boats. The vessels did not respond to attempts to contact them, and the Carr opened fire with a .50-caliber machine gun on one of the boats after it ignored two volleys of warning shots and continued to head toward the Patriot, the Pentagon said.
'No Conclusive Evidence'
In Washington, the Defense Department said in a statement Tuesday that U.S. naval officials have been asked to study the reports that the Carr fired on a civilian boat. However, it said it has seen "no conclusive evidence" that would merit changing its original account.
The Sharjah shipping officials said the three boats involved were all "Barracuda" fishing boats--open-decked, fiberglass vessels that closely resemble Boston whalers.
Each boat carries a three-member crew, but none is equipped with radios, which could account for their failure to respond to the Carr's initial attempts to contact them, the officials said.
According to the officials, the boats had been fishing off Abu Musa and were returning to Sharjah when they came across the U.S. convoy between 6:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday night, a time that coincides with the Pentagon's version of events.
Rama Madao, a 24-year-old Indian crewman aboard the Al Hudei, said the two other vessels had already moved ahead of the convoy while his boat lagged behind because of engine trouble. Of the several sources interviewed by The Times, he was the only one who agreed to speak on the record.
Madao said he first spotted the convoy when it was between his boat and the other two.
He said he could not make out the nationality of the ships because it was already dark. However, he added: "We could see lights coming at us and could make out that one of the ships was a warship and the other a tanker of some kind."
Madao said the Al Hudei, its engine repaired, was racing to catch up to the two other fishing boats when "the warship signaled us to stop by flashing its lights."
From this point on, his account differs significantly from the Pentagon's version of events.
Madao said the Al Hudei stopped as soon as it recognized the warship's signal and, using a hand-held spotlight, answered back that it was stopping.
Moments later, several helicopters circled low over the boat before turning away, Madao said.
'We All Fell on the Deck'
"Then, minutes after that, we heard firing from a machine gun," he said. "We all fell on the deck. When we got up again, after the shooting stopped, we saw that Jagadeh had been shot."
Baghadan's employer, who also owns one of the three fishing boats involved in the incident, said the Indian was standing in the bow of the boat when the warship opened fire.
He added that Baghadan was still alive when the boat reached the Sharjah shore about 45 minutes after the attack but died en route to Sharjah's Al Kassimi Hospital.
The Al Hudei, which was moored off a beach near Sharjah's Port Khaled on Tuesday night, bore no visible signs of an attack. Madao and Baghadan's employer said that the low-slung craft, which has no superstructure apart from a small instrument panel in the stern, was not hit.
There had been blood in the bow, where Baghadan fell mortally wounded, but it was cleaned up Monday after the Sharjah police finished taking pictures of the craft, the employer said. He added that he has protested the incident to the Emirates coast guard.
Three Previous Incidents