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Indian fisherman's killing: Did US Navy jump the gun?

The tragic incident off the coast of Dubai on Monday, in which an Indian fisherman was shot at and killed by US Navy personnel and three others were injured, is a perfect metaphor for the larger play of geopolitical forces in the troubled region.

Just like the fishermen's boat, which evidently posed no danger but was shot at because it was in the wrong place at the wrong time, India is at risk of being caught in the crossfire when tensions between the US and Iran rise, as they have in recent months.

Muthu Muniraj, one of the Indian fishermen injured in the US Navy firing off Dubai, in hospital. Reuters.

The initial premise - that the UAE fishing boat with the Indian fishermen may have erred in not heeding warnings and gotten a little too close to the US Navy ship USNS Rappahannock - is already giving way to an alternative narrative that shows up that the US Navy may have, in their extreme nervousness of operating in arguably the world's most politicised waterways, jumped the gun. The distant memory of the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen may have triggered an excessively alarmist response.

The US Navy's claims - that the incident happened nearly 50 km off Dubai and that its sailors opened fire only as a last resort after attempts to warn the fishing vessel - are already being challenged by, among others, Dubai's police chief, Lt Gen Dahi Khalfan Tamim. The National newspaper quoted Tamim as saying (here) that the captain of the fishing vessel did not receive any warning, and that a preliminary investigation had established that "the boat was in its right course and did not pose any danger. The shooting was clearly a mistake."

(Tamim, however, has a record of being publicly critical of US policies in the Gulf, and it won't help India's cause in securing justice for the fishermen if the investigation into the shooting is tainted by perceptions of police bias.)

But even the heads of private security companies who operate in the region, in very exacting circumstances, acknowledge that the US Navy personnel may have overreacted.

Nicholas Davis, the CEO of Maritime Guard Group, said that it appeared that the US Navy had adequate time to launch a fast intercept vessel to stop the fishing boat before it got too close. It was highly unlikely that there was a high risk of a potential terrorist or piracy threat to anyone so close to the Dubai coastline, he added.

In his estimation, the incident underlines the need for navy personnel to "understand the habits and behaviour of each area before using lethal force."

UAE officials have also contested the American claim that the incident happened in international waters. They place it far closer to the Dubai port.

The fishermen have claimed that they received no warning, and were fired upon when they were attempting to go around the US Navy ship. Other security experts too point out that the response in such situations has to be layered.

Just as the recent incident of the killing of Kerala fishermen by two Italian Marines, in India's territorial waters, showed, events such as these establish the case for reviewing the circumstances in which letahl force may be used, particularly so close to the shores.  Just as surely, there is a case for briefing Indian fishermen, who appear to have an extraordinary ability to get into trouble, on the due protocol to be observed when they are in the vicinity of military vessels.

Beyond the immediate developments, the incident shows up the risks that get amplified when tensions are ratcheted up, as they have in recent times in the Gulf, over Iran's nuclear plans. India counts on both Iran and the US as friends, and it has tried to walk a middle ground without being seen to antagonise or favour either side.

Under US pressure, it has scaled back its crude oil imports from Iran, without risking punitive sanctions, and has even been rewarded in other ways. For instance, it is widely believed that Saudi Arabia's recent decision to deport Abu Jundal, who hand-held the 26/11 Mumbai attackers from a control room in Karachi, to India was under US influence to wean India off Iranian oil.

But that tightrope walk could get a lot more complicated if the tension escalates. The Dubai shooting incident is only the most dramatic manifestation of India being caught in the crossfire.