U.S. warships, relying on deception and speed, today steered the third convoy of reflagged Kuwaiti tankers through the narrow Strait of Hormuz and into the Persian Gulf.
The convoy set sail before dawn in a move that caught shipping sources by surprise. Washington had given no indication when the convoy might begin its journey.
Sources at Lamnalco, the Dubai-based agent for the Kuwaiti ships, said the American flags for the convoy were still in its office.
"Even the flags are still with us. We do not know what happened," said one source at the agent's office.
'Fooled Us All'
"They have really fooled us all," said another shipping source who regularly monitors ship movements and convoy activities. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity.
In Washington, the Pentagon briefly relaxed a news blackout on the operation to confirm the convoy had passed through the Strait of Hormuz "without incident."
Releasing a statement from Rear Adm. Harold J. Bernsen, the commander of the Navy's Middle East Force, the Pentagon said the convoy had passed an unspecified number of Iranian ships on "routine patrol operations" in the Gulf of Oman on Tuesday evening, when it began its journey.
"Officials indicated that they noted no unusual Iranian air activity," the statement said.
The last time a U.S.-escorted convoy traversed the strait, an American F-14 Tomcat fighter fired two Sparrow missiles at an Iranian jet that was approaching an unarmed U.S. surveillance plane. Officials said neither missile struck the target and the Iranian jet immediately reversed course and returned to Iran.
The Pentagon said aircraft from the carrier Constellation once again provided air cover for the transit through the strait. The statement identified the three warships accompanying the tankers as the guided-missile destroyer Kidd and the guided-missile frigates Crommelin and Klakring.
Stars and Stripes Fly
"The six-ship group . . . passed through the Strait of Hormuz without incident this morning. The tankers were refitted with the Stars and Stripes shortly before starting their 600-mile trip to Kuwait," the statement said.
The U.S. amphibious assault carrier Guadalcanal apparently was moving miles ahead of the convoy, its minesweeping RH-53D Sea Stallions scanning the projected course for dangers. The carrier was reported being shadowed by an Iranian vessel.
Three Kuwaiti ships--the supertanker Townsend and gas carriers Gas Queen and Gas Princess--and the three U.S. warships made up the official convoy, but shipping sources said an unidentified tanker joined the procession through Hormuz, then dropped out once the convoy reached the gulf.