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Ship Arrives in Port, U.S. Navy Shadowing Other Merchant Ships

January 13, 1986

FUJAIRA, United Arab Emirates (AP) _ An American cargo ship that was intercepted and searched by the Iranian navy in international waters arrived in this port today, and U.S. warships were reported to be escorting other American vessels in nearby shipping lanes.

The U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, George Quincey Lumsden, visited the 39,000-ton President Taylor after it entered port and listened to a report on the incident by the ship’s captain, Robert Reimann.

Malcolm Stafford, general manager of Fujaira National Shipping Co., agents of the President Taylor, said, ″Everybody (aboard) is safe, everything is fine.″

The vessel with its 43-man crew was scheduled to leave Tuesday for India, he said.

A maritime shipping agent who spoke on condition he not be identified said, ″Units of the U.S. Navy have been physically shadowing American merchant ships in and near gulf sea lanes, protecting them against the eventuality of being harassed by the Iranians.″

The shipping agent contended the Iranians were ″merely flexing their muscle, apparently to demonstrate solidarity with Libya.″

The Reagan administration accuses Libya of supporting the terrorist group that is believed to be responsible for attacks at the Rome and Vienna airports Dec. 27 in which 19 people died. Last week, President Reagan announced an end to all economic activity between the United States and Libya, and ordered Americans living in the North African country to leave.

In Washington, U.S. Navy sources said today that the destroyer Conolly and the frigate Boone are now operating in the Gulf of Oman. The sources said they did not know how many other U.S. vessels might be in the vicinity.

Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, at a breakfast meeting with reporters, said the combat ships moved to the gulf of Oman ″at the request of the merchant ship,″ the President Taylor.

″The American merchant ship is entitled to call on the Navy for protection; they did, and we responded,″ Weinberger said.

No arms were found aboard the ship, which is owned by American President Lines, Ltd., of Oakland, Calif.

″Seven armed Iranian soldiers and officers boarded the ship and opened three boxes of cargo,″ one Arab diplomat told The Associated Press. ″What we know is that the boxes contain cotton. The President Taylor had to stop and allow the Iranians to come aboard when these Iranians threatened to blow it up.″

It was the first American vessel boarded by the Iranians, who have boarded cargo ships from other countries in an effort to block arms shipments to neighboring Iraq. Iran and Iraq have been at war since September 1980.

Iran’s official Islamic Republic News Agency confirmed the interception of the ship in a report monitored today in Nicosia, Cyprus. The news agency said seven sailors boarded the ship Sunday, and that it was released two hours later.

IRNA quoted an Iranian naval officer as ″repeating once more that in the Persian Gulf, Iran will seize ships suspected of carrying military hardware for the Baghdad regime.″ It also said no arms were found on the ship.

Sources in the Persian Gulf said the sailors boarded the ship in the Gulf of Oman about 30 miles southeast of Fujairah and 20 miles off the coast of Oman.

White House spokesman Peter Roussel, who said President Reagan had been informed of the incident, called it ″a matter of serious concern.″ Reagan returned Sunday afternoon from a weekend at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland, but made no comment to reporters.

Presidential spokesman Larry Speakes said today, ″We don’t think there was any just cause for stopping this ship.″ He gave no indication the administration was considering any action in response.

In an interview Sunday night on Cable News Network, the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations, Dr. Said Rajaie-Khorassani, defended the boarding.

″We think it is justified according to international law because it is not tolerable for us to see that ships are carrying or may be carrying armaments to Iraq,″ he said.

A U.S. government official who spoke on condition he not be identified said the Iranian boarding party consisted of three officers and four sailors ″described as businesslike and non-threatening.″

Richard Tavrow, a senior vice president and general counsel of the shipping company, said the vessel was stopped by one Iranian navy ship.

″They requested the ship to stop,″ apparently by radio, said Tavrow. ″The master protested and said the ship was in international waters, but they in effect said you’d better stop because they had an armed vessel.″

″We’re certainly concerned because we serve Fujaira and we are a major U.S. line company. To that extent we have to be very concerned about anything″ that interferes with shipping traffic, he said.

None of the 23 ships operated by American President Lines serve Iran or Iraq, Tavrow said.

The United States declared neutrality after the Iran-Iraq war broke out. But the Reagan administration has resumed diplomatic relations with Baghdad and organized a campaign to urge other countries not to provide arms to Iran.

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