MANAMA, Bahrain — Iraqi warplanes bombarded ships at an Iranian offshore terminal in the southern Persian Gulf on Saturday, setting fire to at least five tankers, including two of the world's largest, shipping sources said.
At least a dozen crew members were reported missing, with one estimate putting the total at several dozen. The owner of one of the vessels said at least one of his crewmen was killed.
At least two planes attacked the 564,739-ton Liberian-registered Seawise Giant, listed as the world's biggest supertanker, the gulf-based sources said. The vessel was still blazing out of control hours after the mid-afternoon raid on ships at the Larak Island loading terminal near the Strait of Hormuz.
The jets also bombed the British-flag 500,330-ton Burmah Endeavour--among the world's largest vessels--as well as the Spanish-flag 256,808-ton Barcelona, the 166,547-ton Cypriot-flag Argosy and the 231,712-ton Iranian tanker Khark.
'On Fire Everywhere'
"The Seawise Giant is on fire everywhere and the Barcelona is breaking up and sinking," one source said. The other ships were not as badly damaged, he added.
Reports of casualties varied widely.
Lloyd's Shipping Intelligence Unit in London said the Seawise Giant's entire crew of about 50, mostly Chinese, were missing. Gulf-based sources, however, put the number of missing at 14.
Lloyd's also said four crew members from the Barcelona were unaccounted for; shipping sources listed at least two missing from the Burmah Endeavor.
In Madrid, the Barcelona's owner, Fletamentos Maritimos SA, said one member of the crew of 40 was killed and three were missing after the attack. A spokesman said 36 others, all Spaniards, were picked up by nearby ships. Spanish Foreign Minister Francisco Fernandez Ordonez protested the attack to the Iraqi ambassador.
There were no immediate reports on the crews of the other vessels.
In Washington, the State Department said the vessels attacked by Iraq were ineligible for assistance even under new U.S. gulf rules.
"The supertankers were inside one of the exclusion zones, which both belligerents have declared, and they were servicing the port of a belligerent," spokeswoman Sondra McCarty said. "Each of these factors disqualifies shipping from U.S. distress assistance."
Last month, the Reagan Administration said it would extend U.S. naval protection to merchant ships under attack in the gulf unless they were using Iraqi or Iranian ports. U.S. warships previously defended only U.S.-flagged vessels.
Late Saturday, Iranian salvage tugs still were battling flames aboard several of the ships, some of which were moored together to transfer cargo.
Iraq announced the raid five hours afterward, the 10th attack it has claimed against Iranian oil targets since April 29.
"Penetrating Iranian enemy defenses, Iraqi pilots struck at berthing supertankers off the island, setting them ablaze and gutted in fire. Columns of smoke were seen billowing from the hit targets," said the official Iraqi News Agency, quoting a military communique.
The attacks were part of an intensified effort by Baghdad to cut off the export revenues that Tehran uses to finance the war with Iraq, now in its eighth year.
The raid was the third in the past seven months against the Larak terminal, where international tankers pick up oil cargoes brought from Kharg Island by Iranian ships.
To reach Larak, Iraqi fighters must make a more than 1,000-mile round trip, unless they touch down--as some Western sources have speculated--at Saudi and Kuwaiti air bases, or refuel in midair.
Both Seawise Giant and Burmah Endeavour are under charter to Iran as "mother ships," or offshore storage tankers, at Larak.
Larak and nearby Hormuz Island in the entrance to the gulf are the southern end of Iran's shuttle operation for oil and refined products.
A fleet of smaller tankers ferries oil from Iran's northern Kharg Island terminal to the relative safety of southern waters, discharging the oil into supertankers moored there and taking refined products back north. Customers collect their oil from the supertankers.
Almost 450 ships have been damaged in the war, most since it spilled into the gulf in 1984. Estimates by maritime agencies and other sources indicate that more than 300 seamen have been killed.
The Larak raid came hours after a U.S. Navy-escorted convoy of three Kuwaiti tankers sailed through the Hormuz into the Gulf of Oman without incident. It was the 31st convoy of the year.