MANAMA, Bahrain — U.S. and British navy helicopters Friday plucked 20 crewmen from a raging fire aboard a South Korean freighter in the southern Persian Gulf after Iranian gunboats opened fire on the vessel.
The rescue marked the second time in two days that U.S. and British forces protecting merchant ships in the vital sea lanes have come to the aid of a foreign-flagged vessel threatened by Iran.
Several hours later, Iranian gunboats attacked the 9,566-ton Saudi Arabian tanker Nejmat El Petrol, shipping sources and the London-based Lloyd's Shipping Intelligence Unit said Friday. The sources said a U.S. helicopter radioed that it was going to help the Saudi vessel.
20 Miles From Emirate
The Iranian gunboats attacked the 19,682-ton Hyundai 7 late Friday afternoon about 20 miles northeast of the emirate of Sharjah. The site of the attack was south of the island of Abu Musa, where Iranian gunboats often dock.
"We are being attacked by Iranian gunboats," the captain of the South Korean freighter said in a radio Mayday as the Iranian boats fired several rocket-propelled grenades at his ship.
The grenades ignited a roaring fire that engulfed the bridge, crew quarters and much of the starboard side, driving the entire crew to the sanctuary of the bow and leaving the freighter steaming out of control.
"It was a real mess," said CBS News reporter Allen Pizzey, who was aboard a chartered media helicopter that reported the attack to the British frigate Scylla and the U.S. guided missile frigate Elrod.
"We radioed in a distress call for them," Pizzey said. "The crew was trapped on the bow of the vessel and fire was engulfing the crew quarters and bridge."
A Helicopter from the Scylla rescued nine panic-stricken crewmen from the bow of the blazing ship and an American helicopter picked up another 11, the British Defense Ministry said in a statement issued in London.
A Pentagon spokesman in Washington, Lt. Cmdr. Chris Bowman, confirmed that 20 crewmen were rescued, but he was not able to confirm other details of the operation.
But a photographer for the British news agency Reuters witnessed the attack and was able to provide some other details.
Winched to Safety
"The American helicopter winched four or five people off," said Frederic Neema, who was aboard a press helicopter.
"Then the Royal Navy helicopter took over, sending one man down each time to carry crewmen up by wrapping his arms around them."
"There was timber buring on both sides of them. If help had not arrived within an hour, they would have been burned," Neema added.
CBS reporter Pizzey said the American helicopter, likely a SH-2 surveillance chopper, took two crewmen on each pass over the vessel, which was loaded with timber and bound for the port of Dubai. The British Lynx helicopter rescued four seaman on each trip.
The crewmen, all Koreans, were flown to the Scylla, where the ministry said they were "enjoying typical Royal Navy hospitality and Christmas dinner."
Lloyd's Shipping Intelligence Unit said the blaze on the Hyundai 7 had been extinguished by nightfall by firefighting tugs and the freighter was being towed to Dubai by two salvage tugs.
Iran's attack late Friday on the Saudi tanker left two of its crewmen with minor injuries and caused a fire that was quickly extinguished by the crew, said shipping sources who monitor radio traffic in the gulf. The sources said the U.S. helicopter radioed that it was going to help the vessel, which was hit in the same area of the gulf as the South Korean ship, but did not say what type of assistance it was going to provide. There was no immediate U.S. confirmation of the report.
Iraq and Iran have attacked 27 commercial ships so far this month, the most devastating spell since the so-called tanker war began in earnest in 1984 as a spillover of their 7-year-old land war.
The attack on the Korean vessel marked the second time in two days that British and American forces have come to the aid of a merchant ship in the gulf. On Thursday, Iranian gunboats fired on a U.S. Navy helicopter when it flew to investigate them as they threatened to attack a Liberian tanker in the gulf. A nearby British frigate also sent helicopters to watch the gunboats, but that copter was not fired upon.
Two weeks ago U.S. Navy helicopters from from the guided-missile destroyer Chandler and a CBS-chartered helicopter joined to rescue 40 people from the Cypriot tanker Pivot, which was also set ablaze by an Iranian attack.
No Violation of Rules
U.S. Navy officials have said humanitarian help for ships and crewmen in distress does not violate the Pentagon's rules of engagement in the gulf, which prohibit direct protection of foreign-flag ships.
However, the Pentagon disclosed this week that it has broadened those rules of engagement to extend protection to U.S. allied warships in case of attack.
The Navy has 11 ships in its Middle East Force in the gulf to protect and escort Kuwaiti tankers, reflagged to show the Stars and Stripes, from Iranian attack. Britain, the Soviet Union, France, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands also have warships in the gulf or just outside.
In Manama, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) called Friday for "powerful diplomacy" from Washington to help end the Iraq-Iran conflict as he wound up his Christmas round of Navy units in the region.
Iraqi War Claim
In ground fighting, a communique said Friday that Iraqi warplanes had inflicted "heavy losses" on Iranian military camps and troop concentrations with a devastating blitz along the southern front near Dezful and Shustar, state-run Baghdad Radio reported.
The two cities are about 50 miles west of the border 120 miles south of Fakkeh, where Iraq said it repulsed a large Iranian assault last weekend.