Second U.S.-Escorted Tanker Convoy Quietly Heads Through Gulf
MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) _ Three Kuwaiti tankers flying the American flag and escorted by four U.S. warships sailed through the Strait of Hormuz, then up the Persian Gulf in single file after a secrecy-shrouded departure Saturday.
Gulf-based shipping sources said that as the convoy cleared the strait, the biggest tanker, the 81,283-ton Sea Isle City, moved to the front, a maneuver apparently designed to minimize the ships’ exposure to mines.
The convoy is the second to move up the waterway under President Reagan’s plan of reflagging 11 Kuwaiti tankers to afford them U.S. military protection.
″The ships are moving in single file - tanker, warship, tanker, warship, tanker, warship,″ said one source, adding that the fourth warship was seen ″exploring″ several miles ahead of the group.
The sources, who asked not to be identified, said the reports came from observers who saw the convoy. The reflagged supertanker Bridgeton was similarly used during the first convoy after it was damaged in the gulf July 24 by a submerged mine believed to have been planted by Iranians.
While the big tankers are relatively able to withstand the impact of a mine, U.S. Navy officers have expressed concern that their lighter warships, with as many as 400 to 500 men aboard, would suffer severe damage and casualties from such a blast.
In Kuwait, a Western diplomat said several floating mines were found in the gulf recently, none moored to the bottom and none in the channel where the Bridgeton was damaged while steaming under escort with the Gas Prince.
Shipping company sources said the U.S. warships had jammed Iranian radar and maintained radio silence during the convoy’s 5 1/2 -hour transit of the dangerous strait, where vessels come within range of Iran’s coastal anti-ship missile batteries.
An Iranian frigate was later observed trailing the convoy, but remained several miles back and did not cause the warships to react visibly, a shipping source said. The Navy has said an Iranian frigate shadowed the first convoy as it moved south through the gulf the previous weekend.
Pentagon spokeswoman Elaine Mares in Washington said Saturday that Navy officials reported seeing an Iranian aircraft ″conducting surveillance operations″ of the escort transit group near the Strait of Hormuz and that the Iranian frigate was on ″normal patrol.″
″The three tankers have safely exited the Strait of Hormuz and are now in the Persian Gulf,″ Ms. Mares said.
Before dawn Saturday, the Sea Isle city, the 46,723-ton Gas King, and the 79,999-ton Ocean City and their escorts had weighed anchor about 50 miles outside the strait, where Iranian naval forces ended four days of military exercises at midnight Friday.
The strait is 70 miles wide at each end and about 24 miles wide at the center.
Once through the passage, the escorting missile frigate USS Crommelin began broadcasting warnings to other shipping to keep at least 2,000 yards from the convoy - and ships were obeying, shipping company monitors said.
By dusk, the seven-ship flotilla was reported past Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, and moving at about 15 to 16 knots on a course that would bring its 600-mile voyage to an end off Kuwait late Sunday.
However, one shipping source said the U.S. escorts would likely vary the speed to keep the convoy’s progress unpredictable and make sure it passes through certain danger areas during daylight, when hazards are more visible. This could delay its arrival to as late as Monday, said the source, who insisted on anonymity.
The convoy made a surprise departure, apparently in an effort to confuse the Iranians, who repeatedly threatened to launch suicide boat and other attacks against the American vessels.
On Friday, Pentagon officials in Washington said the operation probably would wait until U.S. minesweeping helicopters arrive in the gulf in five or six days. On Saturday, however, Ms. Mares said ″We have minesweeping capabilities with the Middle East force.″ She declined to discuss details.
After the Bridgeton hit a mine near Iranian-held Farsi Island, the Pentagon was criticized for having no minesweepers in the region.
A diplomatic source, who demanded not to be identified, said Saturday that ″the Americans seem to have decided to take advantage of Iranian bonhomie after they ended their naval exercises and retired home.″
Iran’s official Islamic Republic News Agency, in a dispatch coinciding with the convoy’s entrance into the gulf, quoted President Ali Khamenei as saying clashes were inevitable if foreign warships try to impose their will in the gulf.
Khamenei, speaking Friday during Iranian naval maneuvers, said Iran was capable of confronting American and French warships and ″any invasion″ in the Persian Gulf, IRNA said.
A convoy of four French warships headed by the carrier Clemenceau was reportedly on its way to the region.
Kuwait sought U.S. flag protection after Iran last September began attacking ships owned by or serving the emirate, Iraq’s western neighbor at the northern end of the gulf.
Iran says Kuwait serves as a transit point for shipping arms to Iraq, whose ports were closed soon after Iran and Iraq went to war September 1980.
Kuwait denied Saturday a British newspaper report that it secretly was negotiating with Iran to end U.S. reflagging if Iran stops attacking its tankers.
A Kuwaiti shipping source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said minesweeping was not crucial to this convoy because neither the empty tankers nor the warships need to use the Farsi channel.
A Western diplomat there said that because of the ships’ relatively shallow draft, they have ″lots of choices″ of routes. The deep-draft Bridgeton did not.
Escorting the convoy in addition to the Crommelin were the guided missile destroyer Kidd, the missile frigate Jarrett. The fourth ship was not immediately identified.
The cruiser Valley Forge had been anchored with the convoy-in-waiting overnight, witnesses said.
The helicopter carrier Guadalcanal is to ferry eight RH-53D minesweeper helicopters to the gulf. U.S. officials said it left the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia on Friday.
More than 330 ships have been attacked in gulf since the Iran-Iraq war began.