Ship contracted by US military fires warning shots at boats in Gulf

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A civilian ship contracted by the US military fired warning shots at two small boats approaching it in the Persian Gulf, the US Navy said Friday, describing the latest of a string of similar incidents that have triggered concern in Washington.

The US military has been wary of small boats operating near its ships ever since an explosive-laden vessel rammed the USS Cole as it refueled in a Yemen harbor in 2000, killing 17 sailors onboard.

Last month, a US Navy-contracted ship fired warning shots at approaching motor boats in the Suez Canal, accidentally killing an Egyptian citizen.

Fears of potential danger in the Gulf were heightened in recent months by several incidents in the narrow Strait of Hormuz where small Iranian boats approached American warships despite warnings to alter their course. Senior US military officials have warned Iran about the risk of triggering an unintended conflict if its boats continue to harass American ships in the Gulf.

The US Navy said it does not know whether the two boats that approached the Western Venture cargo ship on Thursday morning were from Iran. Iranian officials have denied their vessels were involved in the incident.

The Western Venture was transiting 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 US Navy's 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 small 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 boats 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.