MANAMA, Bahrain — An Iranian frigate shelled an oil tanker in the Persian Gulf on Thursday, setting it ablaze.
At the same time, a U.S. cruiser scrambled to full alert and trained its missiles on three Iraqi warplanes streaking toward it, but no shots were fired and the jets veered away, the ship's captain said.
The two incidents occurred as thousands of American sailors assigned to protect U.S.-flagged vessels in the waterway sat down to tense Thanksgiving dinners.
The Iranian frigate Sahand opened fire on the oil tanker about two hours after the amphibious assault ship Okinawa left the area, 10 miles off Dubai in waters of the United Arab Emirates, after warning the tanker to try to avoid the Iranian vessel.
"The tanker got five or six hits," said Greg English, an Associated Press photographer who saw the attack from a helicopter. "The rest of the shots were like stones skipping in the water."
No injuries were reported in the shelling, which started an engine room fire that the crew extinguished. The tanker, carrying the name Dacia on its hull and apparently bound for Rotterdam, was loaded with crude oil from Kuwait, which Iran accuses of aiding Iraq in the seven-year-old war between the two Persian Gulf neighbors.
However, the true identity of the crippled tanker was something of a mystery because the captain of the vessel identified itself in distress calls as the Romanian ship Dacia. This seemed improbable as the Dacia was reported by shipping sources at Lloyd's of London to be under repair at a port in the Black Sea.
The tanker attacked Thursday was believed to have once been called the Umm Al Jathathel, a 47,169-ton vessel owned by the Kuwait Oil Tanker Co., a Lloyd's source said.
Painted on Hull
Photographer English, who witnessed the shelling, said he saw "the name Dacia painted in white on the black hull . . . but it was over a previous name and . . . that name was Kuwaiti. No one thought about that at the time."
Other industry sources said the Umm Al Jathathel sailed from Rotterdam on Oct. 28 and passed through the Suez Canal on Nov. 8. Its name was apparently changed between the canal and the Persian Gulf. It was not immediately clear why it had been altered.
Kuwait Oil Minister Sheik Ali al Khalifa al Sabah said in a telephone interview that he could not confirm whether a ship owned by the Kuwaiti firm had changed its name.
In the other incident of the day, the U.S. cruiser Richmond K. Turner went on "condition 3 alert," the highest state of readiness, and trained it missiles on three Iraqi F-1 Mirages streaking south down the gulf, but no shots were fired and the jets veered away.
"They were flying in a ship attack profile," said Capt. John D. Luke, commanding officer of the Turner. "They were flying so low so that they could not be seen on radars, they were going fast and they were coming toward us."
Radio Signals Ignored
The Iraqi planes also ignored several radio signals before the alert was signaled through the ship, officers said.
The incident recalled the accidental May 17 Iraqi attack on the frigate Stark, which killed 37 American sailors and led to a greater U.S. presence in the war-torn region.
Luke did not say exactly how close the Iraqi planes had come but said, "if you had been on deck you might have been able to see them."
The alert on the Turner did not seriously disrupt the Thanksgiving meal, which included about 30 turkeys and 80 pounds of turkey loaf, with all the trimmings.
The scene was repeated aboard the other ships of the navy's Middle East Force.