MOGADISHU, Somalia – Somali militiamen who skirmished with U.S. Navy vessels denied Sunday that they had fired the first shot, claiming that they had been patrolling Somali waters to stop illegal fishing.
On Saturday, two U.S. Navy ships exchanged gunfire with the suspected pirates off the coast of Somalia, killing one and wounding five. No U.S. sailors were injured. The U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet said again on Sunday that its ships did not fire first, disputing the militiamen's version.
"The Navy ship returned fire after being fired upon," fleet spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Charlie Brown told The Associated Press.
The incident took place in international waters and the Navy took a dozen suspects, including the wounded, into custody after the gunbattle.
Saleban Aadan Barqad, a spokesman for the militiamen, said a total of 27 Somali militiamen had been patrolling off the coast before the gunbattle. Fourteen returned to shore safely, Barqad said on two-way radio from the central Somali town of Harardhere.
The U.S. Navy opened fire first on the small utility boat, which was towing a pair of skiffs, Barqad said. He said the boat then caught fire.
The militiamen, "were in an operation to protect the country's sea resources from illicit exploitation by foreign vessels," Barqad said.
Geraad Mohamud, from the same militia group, said they would kill any hostage they capture and would attack any ship unlawfully plying Somali waters unless their men were released.
Brown said on Saturday that the shootout ensued after the Navy ships, patrolling the area as part of a Dutch-led task force, spotted the suspect 30-foot-long fishing boat towing smaller skiffs and prepared to board and inspect the vessels.
A statement from the Navy's Bahrain-based 5th Fleet said the suspected pirates were holding what appeared to be rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
When the suspects began shooting, gunners on the American ships returned fire with mounted machine guns, killing one man and igniting a fire on the vessel.
The Navy boarding teams confiscated an RPG launcher and automatic weapons, the statement said.
The Navy said the incident involving the Norfolk, Va.-based USS Cape St. George and USS Gonzalez occurred approximately 25 nautical miles off the Somali coast.
Piracy on Somali waters steeply increased last year, with the number of incidents rising to 35, compared with only two in 2004, according to the International Maritime Bureau. The increase in piracy included attacks on vessels carrying food aid for Somalis and a cruise ship.
Somalia has not had a coast guard or navy since 1991 when warlords ousted a dictatorship and then turned on each other.
The troubles facing Somalia's fledging 17-month-old transitional government, including piracy, will be discussed at regional leaders' meeting Monday.
On Friday, Kenyan Foreign Affairs Minister Raphael Tuju renewed a call for a peacekeeping mission to Somalia to help disarm the country's various militias.
On March 15, the U.N. Security Council encouraged naval forces operating off Somalia to take action against suspected piracy. Pirate attacks against aid ships have hindered U.N. efforts to provide relief to the victims of a severe drought in the area.