From combined dispatches
Two U.S. sailors were missing yesterday after an Iraqi oil tanker they had boarded sank in the Persian Gulf.
The missing American sailors were part of an eight-member team from the USS Peterson, which boarded the 1,734-ton tanker Samra in the northern Gulf yesterday, enforcing United Nations sanctions against Iraq.
U.S. officials said the Samra which was flying the flag of the United Arab Emirates appears to have sunk accidentally.
“It may have been weather-related, it may have been overloaded, but we have no reason to believe that it was a hostile incident of any kind,” National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice said on CNN’s “Late Edition” yesterday.
One Navy official said the Samra was “grossly” overloaded. In Washington, Miss Rice and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz emphasized that seizures of tankers smuggling Iraqi oil are routine.
“My understanding is that this was a part of our normal interdiction efforts to make certain that the U.N. sanctions are being observed,” Miss Rice said on CNN.
“The best information we have as of now is that this was one of many tankers that we seize and confiscate,” Mr. Wolfowitz said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” yesterday, “and apparently it was very rusty and started sinking, and we put people on board to figure out what was happening. I don’t think it’s more than that.”
Ten Iraqi crew members from the Samra were rescued and the body of another was recovered by the Navy, said Pentagon spokesman Air Force Maj. Jay Steuck.
Navy search-and-rescue helicopters from the Peterson and two companion ships were hunting for the two missing U.S. sailors as well as three missing Iraqi crewmen, said a Navy spokesman at U.S. 5th Fleet headquarters in Bahrain. The names of the missing sailors have not been released, pending notification of their families.
The Peterson, a Spruance-class destroyer based in Norfolk, was observing the Samra for suspected violation of U.N. Security Council sanctions imposed after Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
Bags of grain were piled in the Samra’s upper holds “to hide the existence of the contraband tanks,” said another Pentagon spokesman, Marine Maj. Ben Owens. He said the ship had been under the control of its Iraqi captain when it went down.
On CBS yesterday, Mr. Wolfowitz called the incident “a reminder that at the same time we are conducting a war in Afghanistan we have military [personnel] engaged in Bosnia and in Kosovo and in Iraq and in Korea. The world remains a dangerous place not just in Afghanistan.”
Joyce Howard Price contributed to this report.