NASSER NASSER and PAUL SCHEMM, AP, March 25, 2008
SUEZ, Egypt - Dozens of angry mourners buried an Egyptian man Tuesday who they said was killed by shots fired from an American cargo ship contracted to the U.S. Navy as it passed through the Suez Canal.
U.S. officials said American military guards aboard the ship only fired warning shots toward approaching motorboats Monday night and said they had received no report of anyone being killed.
The incident occurred when the merchant ship Global Patriot entered the canal from the Red Sea and was approached by small motorboats that ply the waterway selling goods to passing ships, according to both Egyptian and U.S. accounts of the incident.
The Navy has been leery of small boats getting near its warships since al-Qaida suicide attackers rammed an explosives-packed motorboat into the USS Cole off Yemen, killing 17 sailors in 2000.
Cmdr. Lydia Robertson, spokeswoman for the Bahrain-based U.S. 5th Fleet, said cargo ships sailing under contract to the Navy follow the same rules of engagement as American warships in dealing with approaching boats.
"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," the U.S. Embassy in Cairo said in a statement. "One small boat continued to approach the ship and received two sets of warning shots 20-30 yards in front of the bow. All shots were accounted for as they entered the water."
A U.S. Navy security team aboard the ship fired the shots, said Lt. Nathan Christensen, the 5th Fleet's deputy spokesman.
The Navy said in a statement that it was investigating, but that initial reports from the ship indicated there were no casualties.
An Egyptian security official at the canal, however, said one man was fatally shot in the small boat and the three other men with him were wounded. The official agreed to discuss the incident only if he was not identified, because he was not authorized to talk to journalists.
The Egyptian state news agency MENA also reported one man was killed. There was no immediate comment from Egypt's government.
Family and friends buried the reported victim — Mohammed Fouad, a 27-year-old father of two — in Suez, the city at the Red Sea entrance to the canal.
"I saw the body. The bullet entered his heart and went out the other side," Abbas al-Amrikani, head of the local seaman's union, told The Associated Press.
After the burial, dozens of mourners converged on the two-story house shared by Fouad's family and those of his brothers and sisters. Women in black wailed and cried while some of the men buried their heads in their arms.
They railed against America as well as the Egyptian government, which they said does not stand up for them.
"There were no warning shots from the ship. They just turned a spotlight on it and started firing immediately," said Abdullah Fouad, the dead man's brother, who was not on the motorboat but said he spoke to the three other men who were.
"He was shot while trying to take cover," Fouad said of his brother. "We expect this from foreigners, especially Americans who hate us, but we thought our government would help us."
The dead man's sister, Manal, also complained about the government. "If we were protected and people knew there was someone to defend us and stand up for us, they would not have dared gun us down like animals," she said.
Mohammed Fouad's wife, Saadah Abdel-Al, was in shock and could only numbly recall that her husband had been a hard worker. "He went to work every morning. He was not a troublemaker and took care of his family well," she said.
The victim worked on the small boats that sell cigarettes and other products to the crews of ships going through the canal.
The waterborne merchants know not to approach military vessels, but the Global Patriot looked like an ordinary freighter, the brother said. "Normally we go nowhere near military ships," he said.
Hormoz Shayegan, vice president of Global Container Lines Ltd., the New York-based company that owns the Global Patriot, said the ship "does not have any markings to suggest it is a military ship or anything like that." He said the vessel's crew was unarmed.
Robertson, the 5th Fleet spokeswoman, said the Navy team on board took the appropriate "measured steps to warn the vessels that were getting too close."
"We are very conscious of being in heavily trafficked areas and we as professional mariners try to keep people from getting too close," she told the AP by phone from Bahrain.
On Jan. 6, Navy warships nearly opened fire on armed Iranian speedboats that repeatedly sped toward their convoy in the cramped waters of the Persian Gulf's Strait of Hormuz.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the U.S. was working with Egypt "to understand exactly what happened here and make sure we have good, clear, open communications so you don't have a repeat of these kinds of incidents."
He said he expected Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Egyptian Defense Minister Mohammed Hussein Tantawi to discuss the incident during a private meeting at the State Department on Tuesday.
Egyptian officials confirmed the cargo ship was continuing on through the canal en route to Port Said, at the canal's Mediterranean end.
About 7.5 percent of world sea trade passes through the canal, which is 120 yards across at its narrowest points. Canal tolls are a major source of foreign currency for Egypt.