CAIRO (AFP) – The US embassy in Cairo admitted on Wednesday that a US navy-chartered boat killed an Egyptian when it fired warning shots at a small boat plying its trade near the Suez Canal two days ago.
The US had initially denied that there were any casualties in the incident, insisting that all the warning shots were seen hitting the water.
“The Global Patriot … fired warning shots at a small boat approaching the ship as it was preparing to transit the Suez Canal… It appears that an Egyptian in the boat was killed by one of the warning shots,” said a statement.
“The boats were hailed and warned by a native Arabic speaker using a bullhorn to warn them to turn away. A warning flare was then fired. One small boat continued to approach the ship and received two sets of warning shots.”
The embassy said the incident was under investigation and “we express our deepest condolences to the family of the deceased.”
US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said on Tuesday that the US was working with the Egyptian authorities to “make sure that we have good, clear, open communication so you do not have a repeat of these kinds of incidents.”
Egyptian accounts said one man was shot dead and two other people wounded on Monday when the US ship fired on barges which approached the vessel wanting to sell merchandise.
US ambassador to Cairo Francis Ricciardone on Tuesday expressed regret over the incident but said the facts needed clarification.
“We regret if there are victims but we have to know what really happened from both sides,” Ricciardone told a meeting of businessmen in Cairo.
US warships in the Middle East have previously been harassed or attacked by small boats.
Egypt’s official MENA news agency said that “an Egyptian citizen was killed and two others injured when a US military vessel opened fire at a small boat.”
A medic at Suez hospital who asked not to be named said Mohammed Moqtar Afifi was killed by one bullet. The incident occurred as the Global Patriot was in the Gulf of Suez preparing to sail to the Mediterranean from the Red Sea.
Afifi was buried in a Suez suburb on Tuesday.
The chief of US navy operations Admiral Gary Roughead said on Tuesday that the leader of the US navy security team had authority to respond and that the incident was under investigation.
He said the navy commonly places security detachments aboard merchant vessels chartered by the US Military Sealift Command to move military cargo around the world.
Despite being protected by the US military, the ship had no obvious military markings, an AFP correspondent said, and on Tuesday was continuing its trip across the Suez Canal.
The embassy and the navy had said that warning shots were fired “20-30 yards (metres) in front of the bow. All shots were accounted for as they entered the water.”
In January, Iranian speedboats approached three US warships in the Strait of Hormuz and the order was given to open fire but they turned away at the last minute, according to US reports.
In 2000, waterborne Al-Qaeda militants carried out a suicide attack on the American warship USS Cole, killing 17 sailors.
According to the website of the US navy’s Military Sealift Command, the MV Global Patriot is a roll-on roll-off transport ship chartered from Global Container Lines.
The Suez Canal, which opened in 1869, is Egypt’s third-largest source of revenue after tourism and remittances from expatriate workers and currently about 7.5 percent of global trade passes through the waterway.
It is also a key route for the US military to carry weapons, supplies and troops to and from the Gulf, in particular Kuwait and Iraq.