MANAMA, Bahrain — In a rare setback for the international anti-piracy campaign off Somalia, U.S. Navy officials today admitted that the American warship USS Haditha accidentally sank a Chinese fishing vessel just east of Somalia and then inadvertently machine-gunned the survivors.
This contradicted the Haditha's initial report, which said that it had been attacked by seven pirate skiffs and a pair of pirate-operated Mirage jets armed with Exocet missiles.
Vice Adm. Mark I. Fox, the commander of the United States 5th Fleet, spoke to reporters following reports that a fishing vessel had been "blown out of the water" by "an unusually well-armed warship that happened to be flying an American flag."
Capt. Erik King, the commander of the Haditha, claims that his ship was simply following the rules of engagement.
According to him, the Haditha originally spotted what it thought was a pirate vessel while patrolling 75 nautical miles east of Somalia.
"She was casually steaming up and down the coast with a group of armed men on board, obviously lying in wait for the next innocent ship to steam across her path," King said.
Many fishing trawlers carry armed guards while sailing through Somali waters.
When the Haditha demanded the fishing boat stop and be searched, its crew refused, claiming it was a sovereign vessel in international waters.
"Under our current rules of engagement, we're allowed to prevent any suspicious vessels from leaving the area, and that's what we proceeded to do," said King, referring to the Haditha's subsequent attack on the fishing boat with its 5 inch gun, Mark 46 torpedoes, and the Captain's 9mm sidearm, which he fired from the bridge.
After the boat sank, the survivors began swimming towards the Haditha, prompting King to order all four of the ship's .50 caliber machine guns to open fire on them, as well as launch the ship's SH-60 Seahawk helicopter to drop depth charges.
"They were clearly attempting to board our vessel," said King, "and the rules of engagement allow us to use deadly force to prevent potentially hostile individuals from 'closing with or boarding' our ship, so I'm unclear what the problem is."
According to an anonymous source from the Haditha, just before the attack King also told his sailors that he'd rather "be tried by 12 than carried by six."
The Haditha is an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, designed to operate in an asymmetric environment just off the coast of a hostile or potentially-hostile territory.
The ship has been particularly controversial for its habit of conducting escalations of force on Carnival Cruise ships with its Tomahawk Missiles, and of returning captains to their vessels with black eyes and claiming they fell off a ladder.
A YouTube video was also discovered last year showing two members of the ship's crew tossing baby seals off a glacier, although they claimed the seals were already dead at the time.