For eleven weeks the situation in the Persian Gulf had been relatively quiet. Since April 18, when U.S. Naval forces sank or damaged six Iranian warships and destroyed two oil platforms in clashes sparked off by the mining of an American frigate, the two sides had not exchanged fire. But on Sunday, fighting broke out again and that uneasy state of affairs erupted into something far worse than the April
face-off: an Iranian civil jetliner apparently got caught in the crossfire and crashed, killing all 290 people aboard.
The official Iranian radio swiftly blamed the Americans when the Iranair Airbus A300 disappeared on the way from Bandar Abbas to Dubai, 160 miles across the Gulf in the United Arab Emirates, on July 3. The Americans denied the allegation — but with obvious reservations. “That’s not true, to the best of my knowledge,” said one U.S. official. “As far as I know we had nothing to do with it.” But it was clear that the Airbus crashed at about the same time as a clash in which, Pentagon officials said, U.S. forces shot down an Iranian air force jet and attacked three gunboats. And in a later statement, the official Iranian News Agency said that Iranian frogmen had recovered pieces of wreckage showing that the Airbus had been hit by a missile.
By noon on Sunday the exact sequence of events was not confirmed. But the tragedy appeared to have un-
folded in a series of critical steps. The Airbus took off from Bandar Abbas at 10:15 a.m., local time. Its last contact with the control tower was at 10:22 a.m., when it was flying at 7,500 feet, close to the Iranian island of Hengam. A few minutes later it vanished from the radar screen at Bandar Abbas. The Iranians said that it had not sent an emergency call, but Dubai airport officials said that they heard a distress signal.
Meanwhile, in Washington, a Pentagon statement said that at about 9:40 a.m. Gulf time, a U.S. Navy helicopter came under fire from Iranian naval craft. The U.S. cruiser Vincennes and the frigate Montgomery returned fire with fiveinch guns, sinking two of the attack craft and damaging a third. Then, said the Pentagon officials, the Vincennes shot down an Iranian F-14 jet fighter “that was approaching in a hostile manner.” The night before, U.S. warships had driven off Iranian boats attacking a Danish merchant ship.
The Pentagon statement made no mention of the downed civilian airliner. And U.S. officials, claiming that details were sketchy, said that they were not immediately able to pinpoint the location of the naval engagement. And the timing seemed to indicate that the aircraft was a victim of the hostile exchanges. In the circumstances, experts said that it would be a striking coincidence if mechanical failure was the cause. However, that did not necessarily mean that a stray, heat-seeking U.S. missile was to blame. The Iranians have missile batteries of their own on the coast near Bandar Abbas and one of those, fired in retaliation against the Americans, also could have downed the Airbus. It did seem certain, however, that because of the immensity of the disaster, the world will demand clear answers.
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