MANAMA, Bahrain — Iran said Sunday that its forces in the Persian Gulf fired at and chased away U.S. helicopters trying to prevent the seizure of a Greek freighter suspected of carrying war cargo to Iraq, but the Pentagon denied the report.
A Pentagon spokesman in Washington said the account could not be substantiated.
"We looked into that, but we have no indication that any event of that nature occurred," the spokesman said. When asked if he was denying the report, the spokesman said "yes."
But he said he was uncertain whether U.S. forces were near the area where the Iranians claim the attack occurred. Under U.S. Navy rules of engagement in the Persian Gulf, American forces are not permitted to go to the aid of a vessel not flying the U.S. flag.
The reported incident Saturday occurred during the first of two Iranian attacks on Greek vessels within 24 hours.
Iranian Admiral Quoted
Iranian Rear Adm. Mohammed Hussein Malekzadegan was quoted by Iran's state-run media as saying the incident occurred when two U.S. patrol ships and four helicopters "tried to circumvent" the Iranian interception of the Greek-owned 16,275-ton freighter Jimilta in the northern Persian Gulf.
Shipping sources said gunners on the southern Iranian island of Farsi opened fire on the Jimilta about a mile off the coast, forcing it to drop anchor but causing no casualties.
The sources said the vessel actually was empty and was steaming toward Kuwait to pick up cargo.
Tehran radio and Iran's official Islamic Republic News Agency said the Greek vessel ignored warnings to stop for boarding and search but dropped anchor after it was fired upon.
Later, the Jimilta was ordered "from an unknown station" to continue its voyage and at the same time, a number of U.S. helicopters flew over the vessel, the Iranian reports said.
"Malekzadegan said that at this moment, the U.S. naval units issued messages to the captain of the ship advising him not to follow the Iranian forces." But the admiral added that "the Iranian forces opened fire on the helicopters and dispersed them after two hours," the Iranian news agency said.
Iran routinely searches vessels under international law to prevent war materiel from reaching Iraq--its foe in the seven-year-old gulf war--but the actions are usually carried out in the Strait of Hormuz as the vessels enter the Persian Gulf.
A fleet of American minesweepers, a support vessel and at least one heavily armed patrol boat has been operating for several days in the vicinity of Farsi island, but it was not clear if these ships were among those referred to by Iran.
It was the first time since a clash last month between U.S. helicopters and Iranian speedboats that Iran has said it fired on U.S. forces. On Oct. 8, one Iranian patrol boat was sunk and two speedboats were captured.
In the second Iranian attack on Greek vessels, shipping sources said, Iranian speedboats firing rocket grenades attacked the ship Andromeda early Sunday as it was steaming toward the port of Ruwais in the United Arab Emirates at the southern end of the gulf.
Lloyd's of London said the raid caused "considerable" damage to the hull of the vessel, but no crewmen were injured. The Andromeda anchored off Abu Dhabi to carry out a damage check.