U.S., Egypt disagree over Suez shooting, fueling suspicion

A US Navy-chartered cargo ship fired on a small Egyptian boat Monday night. Egypt says at least one man was killed, while the US initially reported no casualties.

Egypt and the United States issued conflicting accounts Tuesday of a shooting incident involving a US cargo ship and a small boat in the Suez Canal, feeding into the deep distrust here of American motives in the Middle East.

The Global Patriot, which was under short-term charter to the Navy's Military Sealift Command, entered the canal from the Red Sea after dark Monday, when it was approached by several small boats, US and Egyptian officials say.

According to the Egyptian government and local reports, the vessel opened fire on one of the motorboats as it transited through the canal, killing an Egyptian man and injuring two others. Two men on the boat were injured and one man, identified as Mohamed Moqtar Afifi by Agence France-Presse, was killed.

The US Navy has been particularly alert to the activities of such small boats near its warships since Al Qaeda's 2000 suicide attack on the USS Cole in Yemen killed 17 sailors.

"The Americans come to the Middle East and deal with everyone like they are Al Qaeda," says Essam el-Erian, a prominent member of the Muslim Brotherhood, the country's most influential opposition group. He says that it is "well known in the area that these people sail beside big ships and sell things."

"It is terrible to kill poor people like this without any warning and it reflects the foolish American policy of treating everyone like an enemy," he said.

But US officials say preliminary reports from the ship indicate there were no casualties. According to the US Embassy in Cairo, the small boats approaching the ship were warned to move away from the vessel by an Arabic speaker on a bullhorn. The ship then fired "a warning flare" at one boat that did not change its course.

"One small boat continued to approach the ship and received two sets of warning shots 20 to 30 yards in front of the bow," reads the statement. "All shots were accounted for as they entered the water."

The motorboats in the Suez Canal incident are believed by many Egyptians to have belonged to mamboutis, local vendors who peddle simple goods such as cigarettes, tea, and snacks to ships passing through the canal.

Pending the results of an investigation, there has been no ready explanation for why the American account is so different from the one reported in the Egyptian local and state-run media.

Nabil Abdel Fattah, the deputy director of the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, also attributed the incident to an American "obsession" with terrorists.

"The American soldiers who come to the Middle East see a threat in everything," he said. "They think so much about terrorist groups, Al Qaeda, nationalist groups. There are many phantoms and obsessions in their minds.

"Egyptians are angry," he added. "There are many nonviolent ways that the American soldiers could get these people away, who were just trying to sell them some simple goods."

• Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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