An Iranian gunboat fired a missile into a Singapore-registered tanker in the Persian Gulf on Saturday, turning the ship into an inferno and killing at least seven seamen, maritime executives said.
They said that an additional crewman was missing and feared drowned and that three survivors were picked up after the attack on the Sedra, a 998-ton petroleum products carrier.
Shipping sources, who insisted on not being identified, said the Iranians used an Italian-made Seakiller missile in the pre-dawn attack about 10 miles off the coast of Umm al Qaiwain, one of the United Arab Emirates.
The attack was one of the deadliest in the "tanker war," an offshoot of the 6 1/2-year-old Iran-Iraq War.
Bodies Found Aboard Ship
The missile struck the chief engineer's cabin and touched off a huge fire, with flames shooting as high as 300 feet, the sources said.
Rescuers found the charred bodies of seven seamen aboard the Sedra, including the captain, identified as 42-year-old Arthur Ghosh of India, who was burned to death in his bed, said a maritime salvage executive.
A crew of 11, identified as South Korean, Indian, Malaysian and Singaporean, were aboard the tanker at the time of the attack. (Reuters reported that the ship carried a crew of 12, with eight dead, one missing and three survivors.)
The vessel, its bridge and crew's quarters burned out, was towed to Dubai for repairs.
About 300 vessels have been crippled by Iraq and Iran in the tanker war, which broke out in 1984.
In Tehran, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini on Saturday scoffed at recent American assertions that the United States would protect shipping in the Persian Gulf.
"Do you think that it is still as it was in the past, when everything in the Persian Gulf or elsewhere was solved through you by uttering a single word?" Iran's supreme leader asked rhetorically.
His speech at his north Tehran home was carried by Iran's official Islamic Republic News Agency and monitored in Nicosia, Cyprus.
U.S. Contingency Plans
A week ago, Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger said the United States was drawing up contingency plans for possible intervention in the gulf because of threats to commercial shipping. His statement followed the disclosure that Iran has deployed Chinese-made Silkworm missiles at the Strait of Hormuz, through which passes about 20% of the non-communist world's oil.
The Sedra, managed by the Singapore-based Neptune Ship Management Services, was on charter to the Kuwait Petroleum Co. until March 25. After ending its charter, it was bound for Singapore when attacked, Kuwaiti oil shipping executives said.
Iran did not report the ship attack. However, IRNA quoted a war communique as saying Iranian gunboats intercepted two foreign cargo ships in the Strait of Hormuz but let them proceed after finding no Iraq-bound goods on board.
The Iranians have attacked a dozen vessels owned by Kuwait or plying Kuwaiti ports since September. Iran claims that Kuwait supports Iraq in the Gulf war.
The United States now has 18 warships in or near the gulf. The aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk is in the Arabian Sea.