Ship standoff strains Jamaica, Honduras relations

Published January 11, 2011

| Associated Press

Jamaica on Tuesday rejected accusations its coast guard used excessive force trying to stop a Honduran fishing boat in lobster- and conch-rich waters, fatally shooting the captain and wounding two crew members.

Honduras' navy commander, Rear Adm. Juan Pablo Rodriguez, charged that fishermen from the Central American nation were unjustifiably attacked by the Jamaican military on Friday night.

Jamaica's security minister, Dwight Nelson, disputed that claim in a radio interview. He said coast guard officers were justified when they shot "disabling fire" at the engine room of the fishing ship, which he said appeared to be on course to ram the smaller patrol boat in Jamaican waters.

"We would reject any notion that unusual force was used in this situation," Nelson said. "We are not conceding that we did anything wrong at all."

Honduran Deputy Foreign Minister Mireya Aguero said officials from the two countries expected to meet in Miami in coming days to try to resolve the dispute.

But Aguero also said Honduras' government intended to take the matter to the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, and she complained that Jamaican authorities had not acknowledged the fatal shooting of the Honduran fishing captain.

Nelson said the coast guard patrol spotted the Honduran fishing ship near the Pedro Cays, a remote area off Jamaica's southern coast that has long attracted shellfish poachers and drug smugglers in speedboats.

He said the vessel fled at full speed when the Jamaican boat approached and the coast guard patrol gave chase as the fishermen ignored repeated orders to stop. A warning shot was fired across the bow, Nelson said.

When the Honduran ship with about 100 people aboard appeared to be trying to ram the patrol boat, officers were forced to shoot at the engine room, Nelson said.

"There were no shots coming from the Honduran vessel," he said, adding that Jamaica must act aggressively to prevent illegal poaching in its waters.

The Honduran navy commander said Jamaica clearly went too far.

"It was an attack in which the Jamaican military used excessive force," Rodriguez told reporters in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa. "If it were a case of illegal fishing, we consider that force was employed excessively because the Hondurans were unarmed."

The shooting was the latest flare-up between Jamaican marine patrols and Honduran fishing crews around the Pedro Cays. In recent years, Jamaican authorities have arrested or given chase to numerous Honduran boats in the shallow waters about 60 miles (100 kilometers) southwest of the Caribbean island's seaside capital, Kingston.

Aguero called for the release of about 60 Honduran fishermen who are held in Jamaica for alleged illegal fishing. The two men wounded Friday night could join them. They were taken to a Jamaican medical facility for treatment and may face criminal charges. The Honduran fishing vessel was allowed to continue back to its home port.

Officials in Kingston said two Honduran fishing vessels have been seized in recent days.

Jamaica and Honduras are about 500 miles (800 kilometers) apart.

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Associated Press writer Freddy Cuevas in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, contributed to this report.

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