AP: A civilian ship contracted by the U.S. military fired warning shots at two small boats that approached it in the Persian Gulf, the U.S. Navy said Friday, the latest in a string of similar incidents to trigger concern in Washington.
The Associated Press
By SEBASTIAN ABBOT
CAIRO, Egypt (AP) — A civilian ship contracted by the U.S. military fired warning shots at two small boats that approached it in the Persian Gulf, the U.S. Navy said Friday, the latest in a string of similar incidents to trigger concern in Washington.
The U.S. military has been wary of small boats operating near its ships since an explosive-laden vessel rammed the USS Cole as it refueled off Yemen in 2000, killing 17 sailors.
Those fears were heightened in recent months by several incidents in the Gulf's narrow Strait of Hormuz, where small Iranian boats have approached American warships despite warnings to alter course. Senior U.S. military officials have warned Iran about the risk of triggering an unintended conflict if its boats continue to confront American ships.
The Navy said it does not know whether the two boats that approached the Western Venture cargo ship on Thursday were from Iran. Iranian officials have denied their vessels were involved.
The Western Venture was headed north in international waters in the central Gulf when it was approached by two small boats of unknown origin, said Cmdr. Lydia Robertson, spokeswoman for the Fifth Fleet based in Bahrain.
"Following proper procedures, Western Venture issued standard queries to the small boats via bridge-to-bridge radio but received no response," said Robertson. "Western Venture then activated a flare but again did not receive a response."
The boats continued toward the ship, and the ship's security team fired warning shots with .50-caliber machine guns and M-16s into the water in front of the small vessels, causing them to leave the area, said Robertson.
A unit that identified itself as an Iranian coast guard vessel radioed the Western Venture a short time after the incident to determine its identity, said Robertson.
"It is not clear if this was one of the small boats or a separate boat," she said.
The Western Venture is owned by U.S.-based Totem Ocean Trailer Express Inc. and was carrying military cargo to Kuwait when the incident occurred, said Robertson.
Oil prices rose sharply on news reports that the boats fired upon were from Iran. But an unidentified Iranian navy official on Friday denied that the small boats were Iranian, according to Iran's official Al-Alam television.
An unidentified senior official from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards said Friday that Iran would have retaliated if the U.S. had fired at its boats.
"If the U.K. or U.S. had fired at Iranian boats, based on previous experience, they would have faced the harshest reaction by Iranian forces," he told Iran's official English-language Press TV.
Five small Iranian boats swarmed three U.S. warships in the Strait of Hormuz in January. The U.S. commanders did not fire warning shots despite hearing a strange radio call saying the boats would explode, and the Iranians eventually retreated.
In December, a U.S. ship fired a warning shot at a small Iranian boat that came too close in the Strait of Hormuz, causing the Iranians to pull back.
The British also tangled with the Iranians in the Gulf last year when Iran seized 15 sailors and marines in March while they were searching a merchant ship off the coast of Iraq. Iran freed the Britons nearly two weeks later.
Tension has been high between Iran and the West in recent years over accusations that Tehran is supporting Shiite militias in Iraq and using its nuclear program as cover for weapons development. Iran has denied both claims.