MANAMA, Bahrain — The United States turned over 26 Iranian sailors and the bodies of three dead crewmen to Iran on Saturday, hours after the U.S. Navy sank their ship in a fiery explosion in international waters off Bahrain.
The crewmen, captured after U.S. forces attacked their ship as it was laying mines in the Persian Gulf last Monday, were handed over to Iranian officials in the Omani capital of Muscat.
The captured Iranians were flown to a military airfield adjacent to Muscat's Seeb Airport by two U.S. military helicopters from the amphibious transport ship Raleigh.
In a correct but curt ceremony supervised by a representative of the International Committee of the Red Cross, they were turned over to the Iranian charge d'affaires in Oman and later flown home aboard an Iran Air jetliner sent to Muscat to receive them, Omani officials said.
Asylum Reportedly Sought
Although the transfer went smoothly, it was clouded by allegations that the Navy had ignored requests by some of the captured sailors not to be sent back to Iran.
In Washington, a State Department spokesman vigorously denied these allegations, saying there had been "no requests for asylum, no requests not to go back (to Iran)."
The reports, circulating in Bahrain and obtained independently from several sources familiar with the capture and the detention of the Iranians, indicated that at least two, and possibly more, of the sailors had asked for asylum because they had cooperated with U.S. interrogators and consequently feared for their lives if forced to return to Iran.
The first reports that some of the Iranians did not want to return home came from Navy personnel aboard the U.S. ships where the captives were held until their transfer to the Raleigh.
Asked about these reports, a senior diplomatic source in Bahrain said he believes them to be true but that a decision to ignore the requests was taken by "higher-ups" in Washington who feared that failure to repatriate all of the Iranians could leave the United States open to charges by Tehran that it was taking hostages.
Since the Reagan Administration put 11 Kuwaiti tankers under the protection of the American flag last July, the United States has been struggling to maintain the appearance of neutrality in the Iran-Iraq War, despite outward signs that its large naval buildup in the gulf is tilted against Iran.
The attack on the Iranian ship, the Iran Ajr, posed the threat of a series of tit-for-tat retaliations that could lead to the United States' being dragged into the war against Iran, diplomats and other analysts said.
With Iran vowing to take revenge for the attack, U.S. officials were eager to avoid anything that might further inflame tensions, which already are running high, these analysts added.
Iranian President Ali Khamenei said Friday that the United States had sent a message to Iran through U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar asking it to consider the Iran Ajr incident closed.
Khamenei, however, rejected this and reiterated Iran's threat to retaliate.
"Our nation takes delivery of the bodies of its young martyrs, and martyrdom is an honor for us," Tehran radio quoted Khamenei as saying. "But what will you (America) have to say tomorrow when you hand over the corpses of young Americans to their families?"
The repatriation of the captured Iranians, along with the bodies of three sailors killed in the attack, took place several hours after the U.S. Navy towed the Iran Ajr into international waters in the gulf and scuttled it.
U.S. military sources said the missile frigate Hawes towed the Iran Ajr into deep water about 40 miles off Qatar, where explosives placed aboard the ship were detonated by remote control.
Pictures provided by the Navy showed the ship exploding in a fireball visible for miles before it sank in about 40 fathoms of water.
Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, who is currently on a tour of the region, told sailors aboard the U.S. command ship La Salle on Friday that the Iran Ajr would be destroyed at sea to prevent it from being used again by Iran to lay mines.
Not surprisingly, Tehran reacted angrily to the scuttling of the ship, accusing the United States of acting illegally and of "destroying the evidence" to support Iran's claim that the Iran Ajr was an innocent cargo ship transporting food, not laying mines.
Kamal Kharrazi, the head of Iran's War Information Headquarters, called the scuttling of the Iran Ajr an "act of piracy . . . and provocation" that further fueled tensions in the gulf.
"What the Americans should make clear now is whether they have formally declared war on the Islamic Republic of Iran with this act," Tehran radio quoted Kharrazi as saying.
"We reserve the right to claim compensation for damages and (to) retaliate," he said.
Gulf-based shipping sources said that while the nine mines found aboard the Iran Ajr provided "ample evidence" to vindicate the attack--on grounds that Iran was engaging in a hostile act--there may be less justification under international maritime laws for scuttling the ship.
"There is a question under international law about whether you are entitled to destroy one country's property if you are not formally at war with it," one source said. "In this strict sense, the Iranians may have a case," he added.
In the war itself Saturday, Iraq said its jet fighters attacked two more "large maritime targets"--its usual phrase for oil tankers--in the gulf off the Iranian coast and raided an oil field and a radio station in southwestern Iran.
The tanker attacks brought to 26 the number of vessels that Iraq has reported hitting over the past four weeks in its effort to choke off Iran's economic lifeline by disrupting its oil exports.