WASHINGTON — A Navy boarding party following up on a U.S. helicopter attack on an Iranian military ship that had been laying mines in the Persian Gulf found three Iranian crew members dead and 10 mines aboard the vessel, the Pentagon said today.
According to one English-speaking crewman from the Iranian vessel who was picked up by U.S. officials, 31 crew members were aboard the ship, the Iran Ajr, when it was hit. Ten were picked up from a lifeboat by U.S. officials, 16 were recovered from the water and two still were missing, the Pentagon said.
Most were being held aboard the LaSalle, flagship of the Navy's Middle East Force, but three who were in serious condition were taken to the transport ship Guadalcanal for treatment.
'We're Not at War'
Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Jim Jannette, when asked the status of the crew members being held and whether they were considered prisoners, replied "obviously that's not language we're using."
Spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Chris Baumann added: "We're not at war so they really couldn't be called prisoners. For now they're being called detainees."
At the White House, presidential spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said "the Iranian personnel will be returned to Iran . . . as soon as possible," adding that the United States had no interest in keeping them.
The Iranians apparently already had deployed six mines before they were attacked, and U.S. helicopters were searching the gulf this morning in an effort to locate them, said another Pentagon spokesman, Lt. Col. Arnold Williams.
'Caught Them Red-Handed'
"This was the first time that we caught them red-handed" sowing mines, one Pentagon official said.
Pentagon officials who demanded anonymity said the mines discovered on the ship were "old-fashioned, but very powerful, contact mines" strong enough to blow out the bottom of a ship.
State-run Tehran radio said five sailors were killed. It said the attacked ship was part of Iran's navy, but denied the vessel was sowing mines in the gulf.
Witnesses at the scene reported that the 1,662-ton Iran Ajr was under tow today by the U.S. frigate Jarrett. It was not clear where the ship was being taken.