A Norwegian tanker was strafed Tuesday by an Iranian patrol boat south of the Strait of Hormuz in the first attack on commercial shipping outside the Persian Gulf, maritime sources said.
The sources said the attack occurred just after noon in the Gulf of Oman, near the Strait of Hormuz, when a small, unmarked patrol boat fired on the Liberian-registered chemical tanker Osco Sierra.
Details of the incident were sketchy and conflicting, partly because nervous officials in the United Arab Emirates imposed a news blackout.
But Persian Gulf shipping sources said the 20,578-ton tanker, owned by the Osco shipping company of Oslo, was strafed by machine-gun fire and possibly hit by a rocket-propelled grenade fired from one of several Iranian boats that have stepped up their activity around the entrance to the Persian Gulf in recent days.
Vessels Frequently Searched
Iranian gunboats frequently stop and check vessels inside the gulf that they suspect of carrying war materials to Iraq.
The sources denied a report by Lloyd's Shipping Intelligence in London, which first reported the attack, that the tanker had been hit by a missile.
They added that there were no casualties and that the ship, which later anchored off the United Arab Emirates port of Fujaira, suffered no serious damage.
Nevertheless, the incident was described by shipping sources here as "extremely serious" because it marked the first time in the nearly seven-year-old war between Iran and Iraq that a ship has been attacked outside the Persian Gulf.
Naval Assembly Point
The attack occurred about 50 miles northeast of the United Arab Emirates port of Khawr Fakkan, which is 10 miles north of the major commercial anchorage at Fujaira for tankers entering and leaving the gulf, the sources said. The area is also currently being used by the U.S. Navy as the southern assembly point for the convoys of reflagged Kuwaiti tankers it is escorting through the Persian Gulf.
Earlier this week, maritime insurers declared the area a "war risk" zone after several mines appeared in the waters off the Emirates' eastern coast for the first time.
A U.S.-owned tanker, the Texaco Caribbean, hit one of the mines on Aug. 10 and a small Emirates supply ship, the Anita, exploded and sank when it struck a similar device last Saturday. Five people, including the Anita's British captain, were killed.
Although shipping officials said the boat that attacked the Osco Sierra bore no identifying marks, diplomats and maritime sources said it was widely assumed to have been an Iranian patrol craft.
"The Iranians will probably try to blame it on the Americans or the Iraqis, but it could not have been any one other than the Iranians themselves," one source said.
The attack, which occurred in an area where the Iranian navy recently staged several days of maneuvers, appeared to be virtually identical to the kind of harassment of international shipping that Iran's Revolutionary Guards have mounted in the past from small, fast, lightly armed patrol boats.
It occurred while the amphibious assault ship Guadalcanal was in the southern end of the Persian Gulf, conducting minesweeping operations off the western coast of the Emirates in preparation for the start of the next U.S.-escorted convoy of Kuwaiti tankers.
Responding to a Kuwaiti request, the United States last month started reregistering half of Kuwait's fleet of 22 oil tankers to put them under the protection of the U.S. flag in order to defend them against possible Iranian attacks.
While Iraq initiated the so-called tanker war and has attacked considerably more civilian vessels than Iran has, Kuwaiti tankers have been singled out by the Iranians because of Kuwait's support for Iraq in the gulf war.
Kuwait helps fund Baghdad's war effort and also serves as an important transshipment point for the flow of arms to Iraq.
The Guadalcanal, which arrived in the Persian Gulf over the weekend to bolster the U.S. Navy's minesweeping capabilities, appeared unexpectedly Tuesday off the western coast of the Emirates, about 30 miles north of Dubai.
An Iranian naval vessel shadowed the ship and fired flares as a warning to journalists flying over the area in helicopters to keep away.
The Guadalcanal, equipped with eight Sea Stallion minesweeping helicopters, was last reported to have been anchored off Bahrain, 200 miles farther up the Persian Gulf from the Emirates. Its sudden appearance off the coast of Dubai led to speculation that the next Navy-escorted convoy of Kuwaiti tankers is about to begin.
However, there was no immediate confirmation of this from Kuwait, where the loaded tankers have been waiting to set sail since Saturday. The convoy's movements are being kept secret to avoid tipping off the Iranians to its whereabouts.
Emirates officials, shocked by the spread of the war to their waters and concerned about its negative impact on the lucrative tanker traffic using the anchorages off its eastern ports of Khawr Fakkan and Fujaira, imposed a news blackout on details of the attack against the Osco Sierra.
Shipping sources said the Osco Sierra anchored off Khawr Fakkan after the incident and that the captain radioed the port to say that he did not require any assistance.
But while Emirates officials tried to play down the incident, diplomats and other knowledgeable observers said it represented "a very alarming development" in what is seen here as an unpredictable and rapidly escalating crisis that the tiny states at the southern end of the Persian Gulf fear will drag them into the middle of a confrontation between the United States and Iran.
After mining this end of the gulf, the attack on the Osco Sierra "would appear to be Iran's way of escalating the psychological warfare," one source said.
He suggested the attack may also be connected to current efforts by Emirates President Sheik Zayed ibn Sultan al Nuhayan to bring about a rapprochement between Iraq and Syria, Iran's most important Arab ally.
Zayed is currently in Damascus for talks with Syrian President Hafez Assad.
The Iranian mining of Emirates waters last week was seen by most analysts here to be Iran's way of warning the tiny confederation not to cooperate with the U.S. convoys using its waters to reassemble before their return trips up the gulf.
The attack on the Osco Sierra could represent "a further turning of the screws" in response to Zayed's mediation efforts, the source added.