KUWAIT — An Iranian missile exploded Thursday on Kuwait's primary offshore oil-loading terminal in the Persian Gulf, touching off a fire and injuring at least three people.
The late morning attack, the third raid in a week on the Al Ahmadi terminal, raised tension sharply in the region. Kuwait's vital offshore oil terminal now seems prey to attack at will by Iranian missiles.
The Kuwaiti government issued a "strong denunciation" of the Iranian action. According to the Kuwait News Agency, the charge d'affaires at the Iranian Embassy was called in by the Foreign Ministry and told that "the serious attack was unwarranted and had unveiled Iran's resolve to drag non-belligerent countries of the region into this tragic war."
Thursday's attack took place just three days after U.S. warships destroyed an Iranian oil platform in the gulf in retaliation for last week's Iranian missile attack against an American-registered tanker at the Kuwaiti terminal. Iran had vowed repeatedly to retaliate for the American attack.
After the missile, described by the Kuwaiti military as a Chinese-made Silkworm, slammed into the Kuwaiti terminal, Kuwait's defense minister, Sheik Salim al Sabah al Sabah, was quoted by the Kuwait News Agency as saying that his government was "considering appropriate measures to deal with this type of missile."
A senior Kuwaiti official said later that Kuwait, which has an army of 10,000 men and a navy that consists of eight ships, was in the process of obtaining sophisticated anti-missile defenses. He gave no details but was quoted as predicting that Kuwait's vulnerability to attack "would not continue."
According to a Defense Ministry statement, the missile involved in Thursday's attack was launched from an Iranian position on the Faw Peninsula in southern Iraq, about 50 miles north of Kuwait. The same type of missile was used by Iran last week in attacking the American-flagged tanker Sea Isle City and the American-owned tanker Sungari, which is registered in Liberia.
One Worker Hospitalized
Of the three oil workers injured Thursday, one was hospitalized with a leg injury. The fire, which was extinguished by Kuwaiti workers, apparently involved diesel fuel that is stored on the terminal for use in pumps. The crude oil did not ignite.
The Al Ahmadi terminal is a 1,000-foot-long man-made island that is used to load crude oil into supertankers that are too large to come alongside an onshore pier.
The terminal, which lies 10 miles off the port of Al Ahmadi, is a dense complex of pipes, pumps and tanks, the heart of which is a central platform, 250 feet in length, that towers 100 feet above the ocean. It is designed so that two supertankers can load crude oil at the same time.
Loading Area Empty
The Kuwaiti oil minister, Sheik Ali al Khalifa al Sabah, said in an interview that there were no ships in the loading area at the time of the attack. He said it is believed that it was the central structure that attracted the missile's homing radar.
He said he could not estimate how long the terminal might be out of service but indicated that it would not seriously impair Kuwait's ability to export. He said the terminal could account for up to 50% of Kuwait's petroleum exports, but that "there are a lot of things one can do when pressed."
The damaged terminal is used exclusively for crude oil exports, and in recent years Kuwait has diversified into exporting refined petroleum products. The refined products are loaded at terminals to the south of Thursday's target.
Kuwait Under OPEC Curbs
The oil minister said Kuwait's export capacity was 5.6 million barrels a day and that the country is required under a quota agreed to by members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to produce no more than 960,000 barrels a day.
Although Kuwaiti officials tried to seem optimistic about the situation, foreign shippers are now considered likely to reassess the danger before sending tankers to load at Kuwait.
On Wednesday, it was announced that insurance rates paid by shipowners have risen dramatically since last week's attacks on the two tankers. The increased rates will not affect Kuwait directly because it writes its own insurance.
The repeated attacks are also regarded as likely to cause anxiety in the convoys of American-flagged Kuwaiti tankers that have been plying the gulf since July, when Kuwait re-registered 11 tankers in the United States in order to qualify them for protection by the U.S. Navy from Iranian attack. Iran has been targeting Kuwaiti vessels because it accuses Kuwait of supporting Iraq in the seven-year-long war.
In Washington, Pentagon officials told the Associated Press that the closest of the two U.S.-flagged Kuwaiti tankers in their home waters--the Sea Isle City and the Gas Princess--"was 10 miles away" at the time of Thursday's attack.