WASHINGTON — Three U.S. sailors were killed and 30 others were missing after an American guided missile frigate on patrol in the Persian Gulf was hit and seriously damaged by a missile launched by an Iraqi jet Sunday.
Lt. Col. Arnold Williams, a Pentagon spokesman, said: "The fires appear to be under control, but one portion of the ship is still too hot to enter. Until it becomes possible to enter the space, we expect that the number of the unaccounted-for will remain at close to 30.
"There's been a lot of heroic actions by the crew, and it's been their prompt actions that figured into saving the ship," he said.
Initial reports reaching the Pentagon were sketchy, Defense Department spokesmen said, because the crew was occupied fighting the fire set off when the vessel was struck by a French-made Exocet missile.
Hostile Intent Doubted
Officials said that the incident was apparently a case of mistaken identity and there was no hostile intent on the part of the Iraqi forces.
Speaking to an audience of Jewish leaders in Washington on Sunday night, Secretary of State George P. Shultz said there were "serious casualties" aboard the frigate, the Stark.
Defense Department spokesmen said two Iraqi Mirage F-1 jets apparently launched one Exocet missile each and that at least one of them struck the Stark.
At the time of the attack, the ship was about 85 miles northeast of Bahrain on routine patrol.
Shultz reported the ship dead in the water, but several hours later, Defense Department spokesmen said it was believed to be making its way toward port, accompanied by the U.S. destroyers Waddell and Conyngham as well as a commercial fire-fighting vessel. Pentagon officials said a Saudi naval vessel and helicopters had also come to the Stark's assistance.
The attack, first reported by Lloyd's of London, the insurance firm, took place in darkness, with the radar-guided missiles apparently fired from over the horizon.
Speculation was that the American ship, similar to vessels in the Iranian navy, was mistaken by Iraqi pilots for an Iranian vessel. Iran and Iraq have been fighting since the outbreak of the Persian Gulf War in September, 1980.
Immediately after word of the incident, the United States demanded a full explanation from the Iraqi government.
"We take this event with utmost seriousness," Shultz said in his speech Sunday night, adding that it "underscores once more the seriousness of the Iran-Iraq War and underlines once more the seriousness of the tensions that exist in the Middle East."
Shortly after receiving word of the incident, Shultz conferred with White House Chief of Staff Howard H. Baker Jr., Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger and White House National Security Adviser Frank Carlucci.
Reagan Told of Attack
President Reagan was told of the attack about midafternoon and was being kept up to date by National Security Council officials Sunday evening.
The United States entered its formal diplomatic protest and demand for an explanation both in Washington and in Baghdad. The Iraqi ambassador was summoned to the State Department to receive the U.S. protest in Washington and instructions were sent to the American ambassador in Iraq to similarly express Washington's demand for an explanation.
"We have demanded an immediate and full explanation," said State Department information officer Deborah Cavin. "We are awaiting the Iraqi response."
Routine Gulf Patrol
The Stark, a lightly armored, but heavily armed vessel which serves as an escort for U.S. merchant vessels sailing into the war-torn region, is one of five American ships that routinely patrol the waters of the 600-mile long gulf.
At the time of the incident Sunday, seven ships were in the gulf, led by the helicopter-carrying command ship, LaSalle. The nearest U.S. aircraft carrier was reported to be several days from the scene.
Defense Department spokesman Sims emphasized Sunday night that there was no reason to believe that the Iraqi jets had knowingly attacked an American ship.
"The Iraqis have not threatened our ships or us," he said. "There's no reason to think they would take hostile action against us. We really don't know why this happened. There's no logical reason for it, other than that our ships look a lot like Iranian ships."
The Exocet missile was used to sink a British ship in the Falklands War between Britain and Argentina, and its introduction into the Iran-Iraq War several years ago was a major escalation, for it made Iraqi Mirage fighters enormously more threatening to Iranian shipping.
Amid the escalation of the fighting, the Soviet Union has agreed to protect Kuwaiti shipping in the gulf, and the United States has been negotiating to register some Kuwaiti oil tankers as U.S. flag vessels as a way of extending Navy protection to the ships.
At the time of the attack on the Stark, the Soviet oil tanker Marshal Chuykov was being towed into port after striking a floating mine in the gulf off the coast of Kuwait.
The mine blew a large hole in the hull, according to marine salvage sources in Bahrain quoted by the Associated Press. The official Soviet news agency Tass, in a dispatch from Moscow, said that none of the crew members were killed; however, it was unclear whether there were any injuries. The attack on the Stark came at about 11 a.m. (PDT) Sunday. It was the first attack on an American vessel in the tense Middle East since Israeli planes struck the intelligence-gathering ship Liberty in the wake of the Six-Day War of 1967.
The Stark is home-ported in Mayport, Fla., and is under the command of Cmdr. G. R. Brindel, according to the Pentagon.