WASHINGTON — American military helicopters opened fire with machine guns and rockets on an Iranian ship that was laying mines in the Persian Gulf, setting it ablaze and leaving it "dead in the water," Pentagon and White House officials said Monday night.
The attack was the first by U.S. forces to damage an Iranian target since the U.S. naval buildup in the region began in July. There were no American casualties, officials said. There was no information Monday night about injured Iranians aboard the stricken ship, the Iran Ajr.
The helicopter attack occurred about three hours after Iranian gunboats set fire to a British tanker, the 57,500-ton Gentle Breeze, in the northern gulf. Earlier in the day, Iraqi warplanes flew deep into Iran to bomb an oil facility near Tehran and other industrial targets.
The White House described the U.S. attack as "a defensive action" in response to clear evidence that the Iranians were sowing mines in a heavily traveled commercial shipping channel about 50 miles northeast of Bahrain.
'An Immediate Risk'
"We have previously communicated with the Iranian government the way in which we would respond to such provocative acts, which present an immediate risk to United States ships and to all ships," said White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater. "United States forces acted in a defensive manner and in accordance with existing rules of engagement."
The Iranian ship, thought to be a 212-foot, Dutch-made landing craft, was spotted about midnight Monday local time by at least two helicopters from the Jarrett, a U.S. guided-missile frigate whose home port is Long Beach, that was patrolling about 15 miles away.
Using night scopes and other unspecified equipment, U.S. forces determined that the Iranians were dropping mines over the side of the ship, Pentagon spokesman Fred S. Hoffman said.
"The location is in international waters at a spot frequently used by commercial vessels, both those of the United States and of other neutral nations," Hoffman said.
There was no radio communication between the U.S. helicopters and the Iranian ship, officials said. The helicopter pilots sought and received permission to fire on the ship from Rear Adm. Harold Bernsen, commander of the Navy's Middle East Force, the Navy battle group that operates inside the Persian Gulf.
"It wasn't a snap judgment," Hoffman said.
The choppers attacked with 7.62-millimeter machine guns and 2.75-inch rockets, setting the stern of the Iran Ajr on fire.
"The fire appears to be out, and the ship is dead in the water," Hoffman said. "Our ships and aircraft are standing by to render such help as may be needed."
Hoffman said that the incident occurred "very near an anchorage that our ships use off Bahrain." He said the helicopter acted after "careful observation" and after officials were satisfied the ship was laying mines.
"And it was clearly hostile intent," he said.
The Pentagon refused to say what type of helicopters was involved in the attack, although the copters appeared to have weaponry similar to that carried by Army MH-6 helicopters used by Special Operations Forces.
U.S. warships reportedly were encircling the Iranian ship early this morning, but it was not clear what further action they might take.
President Is Notified
President Reagan was informed about the incident by National Security Adviser Frank C. Carlucci aboard Air Force One as he was returning to Washington after addressing the U.N. General Assembly in New York.
The incident was the first American military action against Iran since Aug. 8, when a Navy F-14 Tomcat fighter fired two missiles at an Iranian jet that was judged to be threatening a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft. Both missiles missed.
At the United Nations, Secretary of State George P. Shultz said: "Obviously, just from today's events you see how important it is to have a cease-fire" in the seven-year Iran-Iraq War.
A Shultz aide stressed that the U.S. attack was legal under international law.
"This is one of those cases where international law is clearly on our side," the official said. "Laying mines in international waters is not legal."
U.S. 'Had Every Right'
Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a radio interview that the United States "had every right to take the action that apparently we did, which is to stop the mine-laying by stopping the ship."
United Press International quoted U.S. Navy sources as reporting that scores of mines apparently sown by Iranian vessels were recently discovered in the central gulf off Bahrain.
The mines apparently were planted to hit U.S. warships on their way to a small refueling facility in the area that is operated by the Navy, the sources said.
The United States has been steadily building its naval armada in the region since last spring to support its escorts of reflagged Kuwaiti tankers.