Missile Hits Maltese Ship in First Confirmed Gulf Attack of 1988

Associated Press

A missile tore open the hull of a Maltese-flag freighter, Lloyd's Shipping Intelligence Unit said Saturday. It was the first confirmed attack of the year in the tanker war waged by Iran and Iraq.

Operators of the 26,260-ton Alga quoted the captain as saying he believed the New Year's Day attackers were Iranians. No injuries were reported.

Salvage officers based in the Persian Gulf said it was not clear if Iran or Iraq was responsible. Neither country commented on the raid.

Iraq said its warplanes bombed a bridge in western Iran on Saturday, part of a campaign to weaken Iran before the Tehran government launches a major ground offensive, expected soon.

The London-based Lloyd's and salvage operators said the Greek skipper reported that the Alga was hit by a missile in the gulf about 150 miles south of Kuwait, where the ship had taken on a load of fertilizer for China.

The Alga sailed on to the southern port of Dubai on Saturday and anchored with what a salvage worker described as "a large hole in the hull."

A spokesman for the operators, Sea World and Transport of Piraeus, said "a rocket" hit the vessel.

The spokesman, in Athens, said that the 21 Burmese and five Greek crew members escaped harm.

Iran accuses Kuwait of aiding Iraq's effort in the war and often attacks ships trading with that country. The attacks are in retaliation for Iraqi raids on Iranian oil shipping.

All reports said the Alga was hit near Farsi Island, used by Iran's paramilitary Revolutionary Guards as a base for attacks.

Shipping sources said the attack occurred at 10 p.m. Friday, but the company spokesman said it happened 12 hours earlier--the same time Iraq claimed to have hit a "large maritime target" along the Iranian coast.

It was the fourth Iraqi claim of a ship attack since Dec. 26, although none has been independently confirmed.

There were 34 confirmed attacks on ships in the gulf in December. That made it the worst month since the so-called tanker war began in 1981, a spillover of the Iran-Iraq conflict that began in September, 1980.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for the West German Defense Ministry said the Bonn government plans to send five warships to the Mediterranean to replace U.S. vessels sent to the gulf to protect commercial shipping.

In ground fighting, the official Iraqi News Agency said Iraq's warplanes bombed a bridge northeast of the western city of Dezful on Saturday and "devastated their target." All the jets returned from the raid, it said.

Iran is expected to launch a ground offensive soon against Iraq's second-largest city, Basra. The Iranians have massed more than 250,000 men in preparation, according to military analysts and Western diplomats.

Dezful is a key transportation hub slightly north of where the buildup has taken place. Iraq said the bridge it bombed was being used for military purposes.

Iran's official Islamic Republic News Agency quoted the Revolutionary Guards minister, Mohsen Rafik-Doust, as saying the first Iranian-made warplane will be deployed shortly.

Rafik-Doust, who made the comment in the southern port city of Bandar Abbas, gave no details. He said three types of Iranian-made aircraft had been tested at an aviation plant.

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