KUWAIT — A Kuwaiti supertanker, recently re-registered under the American flag, hit an explosive mine Friday as it passed with its escort of three U.S. Navy ships near an Iranian island in the upper Persian Gulf.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said that "retaliation is not a consideration at this time" since "at this point we don't know who is responsible. A mine is a kind of thing that's very difficult to pinpoint."
No casualties were reported among the 26-man crew aboard the 401,382-ton Bridgeton when it hit the mine around 7 a.m. an estimated 18 miles west of the Iranian island of Farsi.
Fitzwater said President Reagan was awakened at 2 a.m. Washington time, about two hours after the explosion, and was informed of it by National Security Adviser Frank C. Carlucci.
Setback to Operation
The incident came as a serious setback to America's planned escort operation intended to provide safe passage through the gulf for 11 Kuwaiti tankers.
Iran, which has been blamed for sowing seabed mines in Kuwait's deep-water channel, about 40 miles north of the location where the Bridgeton struck the mine, called the incident an "irreparable blow on America's political and military prestige."
"The U.S. schemes were foiled by invisible hands, and it was proved how vulnerable the Americans are despite their huge and unprecedented military expedition in the Persian Gulf to escort Kuwaiti tankers," Iran's prime minister, Hussein Moussavi, was quoted as saying by the official Iranian news agency.
Congressional critics of the so-called reflagging operation, in which Kuwaiti ships have been re-registered in the United States so that they can qualify for escort by U.S. warships, have repeatedly warned of the dangers of mines in the waters of the gulf. They have repeatedly pointed out that there is no certainty who placed the explosives, making retaliation difficult to justify.
Senate Democratic leader Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia said the explosion was "one of those things I think we foresaw, one of the perils of the Administration's . . . ill-conceived plan. This is one of the things that we warned against. It's fraught with peril and uncertainties."
In London, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher counseled a calm reaction to the mine incident.
"The important thing in the gulf now is to see that we protect the vessels that are going up and to keep very calm and not react suddenly," she said in a British Broadcasting Corp. interview. "The whole strategy is to de-escalate things in the gulf and keep freedom of navigation going."
The Bridgeton, the largest tanker in the Arab world, was hit below the waterline. It reportedly took on water and soon was listing slightly. But it continued its journey after reducing speed and using pumps to control the intake of water through its damaged hull. It anchored a few miles from its original destination, Kuwait's offshore oil terminal at Al Ahmadi, a few hours later.
The second reflagged vessel in the U.S. convoy, the Gas Prince, tied up at the terminal a few minutes later. The three U.S. Navy ships that had escorted the two tankers had turned their charges over to Kuwaiti patrol boats shortly before and anchored out of Kuwait waters.
Until Friday, there had been no incidents in the so-called tanker war in the gulf for four days, since the U.N. Security Council demanded a cease-fire in the war Monday and ordered both countries to withdraw troops to internationally recognized boundaries. Only Iran presently occupies enemy territory, and it has shown no signs of complying with the U.N. withdrawal order.
200 Feet From Bow
According to a dispatch from the pool of Pentagon reporters aboard the escorting U.S. destroyer Kidd, the explosion on the Bridgeton occurred on the port side about 200 feet from the bow.
Navy Lt. Richard Vogel, who was aboard the Bridgeton, was quoted as saying that officers and crew standing on the bridge about 1,000 feet away were nearly knocked off their feet by the force of the blast.
"We've been hit," Vogel radioed to the Kidd.
Lookouts with rifles were quickly posted in the bow of the Kidd to shoot at suspicious objects in the water in the hopes of detonating any mines.
Reporters aboard the Kidd said they saw objects in the water but were unsure whether they were mines.
The Kidd's captain, Cmdr. Daniel J. Murphy Jr., noted later that the mine hit by the Bridgeton was extremely powerful.
Much Damage Possible
"If we had hit that, it would have done enormous damage to the Kidd," he said.
After the Bridgeton presented such vivid evidence of the presence of mines, the convoy fell into single file behind the huge tanker, which because of its size and empty oil tanks can better withstand mine damage.
On the U.S. cruiser Fox, Capt. William Mathis told a news magazine reporter that the Bridgeton "can take hits easier than we can."
The Bridgeton," he added, "will be acting as a deep-draft minesweeper."