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U.S. Flag Raised on 2 Kuwaiti Gulf Tankers

July 22, 1987|CHARLES P. WALLACE | Times Staff Writer

KUWAIT — Two Kuwaiti petroleum tankers were reborn as American ships without fanfare Tuesday as three U.S. Navy vessels hovered protectively nearby to escort them through the Persian Gulf to Kuwait.

The American flag was hoisted in brief ceremonies aboard the 401,000-ton Al Rekkah, one of the world's largest supertankers, which then formally became known as the Bridgeton, and the smaller Gas Minagish, which became the Gas Prince.

The two ships, which now call Philadelphia their home port, were the first of 11 Kuwaiti tankers to be re-registered as part of the Reagan Administration's plan to provide U.S. naval escorts for Kuwaiti oil exports, ensuring safe passage past the Strait of Hormuz at the entrance to the Persian Gulf and the heavily fortified coastline of Iran.

Expected to Sail Today

The Bridgeton and the Gas Prince were anchored about 17 miles off the port of Khawr Fakkan in the United Arab Emirates, just outside the entrance to the gulf. The two ships were still at anchor by sunset but were expected to leave for Kuwait early today.

In Washington, Pentagon officials refused to divulge exactly when the reflagged tankers and their U.S. escorts will move into the gulf.

"When it goes, it will go," chief spokesman Robert B. Sims said in response to questions. "I will not announce its commencement."

Sims distributed copies of dispatches filed from two of the U.S. warships by a 10-member pool of journalists flown secretly from Washington to the scene during the weekend under a Pentagon system instituted after a controversy over journalists being barred from the 1983 U.S. invasion of Grenada.

The spokesman also turned aside questions on the specific orders under which the Navy ships are operating. "Our people have orders that will allow them to defend themselves."

Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, in an interview with the Reuters news agency, said the United States is ready to respond to any Iranian attack on U.S. ships or Kuwaiti tankers. "We believe we have the capabilities to do that--both in the air and on the sea--and we will certainly exercise those capabilities to protect shipping," he said.

Weinberger added that the United States is prepared to accept the risks involved. "It is not a risk-free operation and we cannot conduct ourselves as the kind of nation with the leadership responsibility that we have if all we are looking for is risk-free situations. There are none," he said.

Two senior Navy officers at the scene said they don't expect Iran to carry out its threats to attack the U.S. ships. Referring to Iran's Chinese-made Silkworm missiles, Capt. David P. Yonkers told pool reporters: "I personally believe they will not be used. If they were to launch one, that would probably be the last one."

On the 550-mile trip to Kuwait, the two tankers and accompanying warships will pass through the 24-mile-wide Strait of Hormuz, where Iran has built installations for its Silkworm anti-ship missiles, although diplomats believe the missiles themselves have not been deployed.

Capt. William Mathias agreed with Yonkers' assessment but added: "I don't know for sure. I have to take the threat extremely seriously." Yonkers is in command of the three Navy ships assigned to escort the two reflagged tankers under the operation co-named "Ernest Will."

The warships are the guided missile cruiser Fox, the destroyer Kidd and the guided missile frigate Commelin. Yonkers and Mathias spoke aboard the Fox which is skippered by Mathias. On board the Bridgeton is its new American master, Capt. Frank Seitz, and the Gas Prince is now skippered by Joseph Roach, according to a dispatch from the Pentagon pool of journalists.

Security was so tight at the reflagging that a U.S. helicopter was sent up to chase away an American television crew aboard a helicopter.

The start of the naval escorts was apparently timed to coincide with the adoption by the U.N. Security Council on Monday of a unanimous resolution demanding an immediate cease-fire in the almost seven-year-old conflict between Iran and Iraq.

While Iran did not accept the cease-fire call, it hinted that it would not attack any shipping unless its own oil tankers were hit by Iraqi aircraft. Iraq said it viewed the resolution positively. Western diplomats believe the convoys are safe from attack for at least two months.

The 2 1/2-day trip to Kuwait will take the American ships within range of a number of islands where Iran's Revolutionary Guards have assembled a fleet of speedboats armed with rocket-propelled grenades and capable of carrying out hit-and-run attacks.

But news of the reflagging was swiftly followed by a sharp drop in oil futures prices on the New York Mercantile Exchange, which experienced heavy trading. Contracts for August delivery of West Texas Intermediate, the U.S. benchmark crude oil, tumbled to $21.70 a barrel (42 gallons), down 50 cents from Monday's close.

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