Kuwaitis Expect Return Convoy by Week's End
Jul. 28, 1987
KUWAIT (AP) _ Kuwaiti officials said Tuesday they expect to send the crippled supertanker Bridgeton back down the Persian Gulf by the weekend with a U.S. Navy escort and a partial load of crude oil.
An official of the state-owned tanker company, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the U.S. Coast Guard had given oral permission to load the Bridgeton. A Coast Guard spokesman in New York said, however, that no decision had been made about the tanker, which now flies the American flag.
The Bridgeton hit a mine Friday as it steamed toward Kuwait, under the protection of three U.S. warships, through waters in which many attacks on ships have occurred in the 7-year-old war between Iran and Iraq.
In Washington, Pentagon officials said Saudi Arabia has told the Navy more mines are moored near Iran's Farsi Island, where the Bridgeton was hit, and that some have been removed.
They said it was too early to say how many mines might have been strewn in the area, but one source said the Saudis had located seven. The sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said ''Navy units'' had begun a preliminary search of the area in the previous 24 hours.
Officials at the Pentagon said they were almost certain the mine was planted by Iran, which has denounced and threatened the American convoy effort.
Pentagon spokesman Robert Sims said the United States assumes the mine that damaged the Bridgeton was planted in the channel shortly before the convoy arrived.
A well-connected shipping source said loading of the 401,382-ton Bridgeton probably would start Wednesday. Kuwaiti officials have said they expect the Bridgeton and the 46,730-ton Gas Prince, which is traveling with it, to leave Friday for the three-day voyage south.
The Kuwaiti official said the Coast Guard had approved loading 1,820,000 barrels of oil on the 1,200-foot-long tanker, more than two-thirds of its capacity, despite a large hole in its port side. Four of its 31 compartments were flooded after the mine exploded.
Coast Guard approval is needed because the ship now is registered as a U.S. vessel. The Bridgeton normally carries 2.4 million barrels of crude.
Capt. Jerome Foley, commander of Coast Guard's Marine Inspecting Office in New York, said a proposal to load the the tanker was being considered but no decision had been made.
''It has not yet been approved, disapproved or modified. It's still being studied,'' he said in a telephone interview.
Foley said the report about oral approval was ''bum information.'' He said the answer to whether the Bridgeton could take on a partial cargo and make the return voyage was ''not a simple yes or no.''
Sims, the Pentagon spokesman, said the Bridgeton would be able to sail with a cargo of up to 50 percent of capacity but did not speculate when that might occur.
According to the Kuwaiti shipping official, loading the Bridgeton to the extent allowed will take 26 hours at the deepwater Sea Island terminal 10 miles off Kuwait's main Mina al-Ahmadi oil terminal.
The Bridgeton has been at anchor 4 1/2 miles off Mina al-Ahmadi. It and the Gas Prince are the first of 11 Kuwaiti tankers to be put under U.S. registration so they can fly the American flag and have Navy protection.
Shipping sources in Manama, Bahrain said a French Navy unit last week shepherded the 276,221-ton commercial oil tanker Athos through the gulf to the Saudi Arabian oil terminal of Ras Tanura. The Athos, operated by Mobil France, was again escorted by a French warship on its return cruise Monday after lifting a load of oil, said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
In Paris, a Defense Ministry spokesman said, however, that there has been no change in France's policy, which is not to escort merchant ships. He said the information provided by the shipping executives was ''incorrect or misinterpreted.''
He said French navy ships, which are in the gulf, might sometimes be near French merchant vessels but would not escort them.
France has had at least three warships in the Arabian Sea, just outside the Strait of Hormuz, since the Iran-Iraq war broke out almost seven years ago.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, patriarch of Iran's revolution, warned the United States of further ''disgrace'' if it continues its naval escorts and said the Moslem world should ''be determined to crush America's teeth in its mouth.''
He said U.S. military intervention in the gulf was a ''big trap and a dangerous game,'' according to a dispatch from Iran's official Islamic Republic News Agency monitored in Cyprus. IRNA said his comments were made to pilgrims bound for the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia.
Iran has concentrated its attacks against shipping since September on vessels owned by or serving Kuwait, which borders Iraq at the northern end of the gulf. Iran accuses the emirate of being a conduit for arms shipments to Iraq, whose ports were closed soon after the war began in September 1980.
After a return 500-mile trip down the Persian Gulf and through the Strait of Hormuz, the Bridgeton would transfer its cargo to smaller vessels and go to Dubai or Bahrain for repairs.
Although the next convoy up the gulf had been scheduled to leave Aug. 6 on the trip north, American military officials have said they hope to improve the Navy flotilla's anti-mine capabilities before convoys resume.
The Bridgeton hit the mine 120 miles south of Kuwait off Farsi Island, which Iranian Revolutionary Guards use as a base for speedboat attacks on shipping.
Maritime sources familiar with the Bridgeton's condition said divers worked late into Monday night repairing parts of its internal structure damaged by the explosion. They said the hole in the hull's left side, which they said covered about 48 square yards, would not be patched until the tanker reached drydock.
''It's a big hole, but we can sail with it,'' one source said privately.