Inspired by a British television broadcast of a similar rescue last week, bare-chested Iraqi frogmen paddled a rubber raft to the middle of the disputed Shatt-al-Arab waterway six times last night to rescue 48 stranded crewmen from a Peruvian tanker.
It happened Monday night, and today the Peruvian naval attache from the Netherlands, who coordinated the rescue mission with the Iraqis, described how during the fifth run Iranian shells started popping over the rubber raft, answered by volleys from the Iraqis.
Nonetheless, there were no casualties save for $600 lost by a petty officer who had his wad of bills fall from his pocket in his haste to get ashore during the shelling and the new shoes worn by the naval attache, Capt. Carlos Saez.
Last night's mission was prompted by a rescue of British sailors stranded on another ship in the Shatt that was broadcast, from start to finish, on independent television in Britain. Saez said the broadcast gave him the idea to mount a similar rescue mission to rescue his country's sailors.
Thus the power of television to influence world events was demonstrated.
The Peruvian rescue was also scheduled to be covered by television -- ABC's Mike Lee had been promised by Saez that he could cover the mission -- but the Iraqi authorities here vetoed the idea.
The 72-man crew of the 18,000-ton Rap Mollendo -- all members of the Peruvian Navy on an around-the-world cruise -- were in no immediate danger, Saez said. But they were running short of food.
One-third of the crew, including Capt. Ezeqyiel Huguet remained on board, fortified with food brought by the rescue party.
The ship, however, was caught halfway between Iraqi and Iranian shore batteries off the Iranian port of Khorramshahr, which has been the scene of fighting for the last four weeks and which Iraq claimed to have captured three weeks ago. Because Iranian shore batteries are trying to control shipping in the waterway, Saez said it was impossible to send a tender to resupply the Peruvian ship and evacuate some of its crew.
So the Iraqi frogmen, who have done little else in this war but participated in the two rescue missions, were called into action.
Saez said they set up the operation on the palm-fringed shore southeast of and across the waterway from Khorramshahr. The Iraqi force was bare-chested, but wore the bottoms of black wet suits. Although they were trying to keep the Monday-night mission secret, Saez said he contacted the crew that afternoon first by yelling at them from the shore and then relaying the specific plans for the rescue through a bullhorn. He said there was no danger that the Iranians could understand because all the conversations were in Spanish.
The frogmen left shore for the first time at 7 p.m., as clouds obscured the nearly full moon. By 10:30, the rubber rafts had finished six trips and all 48 crewmen were safe.
As the fifth boat was heading toward the stranded tanker, however, Saez related, Iranian batteries opened up on the Iraqi shore. He said he did not believe the mission had been discovered, but rather that the Iranians were trying to unsettle the Iraqi forces by keeping them from sleeping at night.
Despite the secret mission, Iraqis returned the fire. The frogmen even shot off volleys of small-arms fire across the water.
The Iranian artillery shots came closer and closer to the frogmen, Saez said. "They were not close enough to be dangerous," he said, "but to be nervous, yes."
He said he and all the rescued sailors hugged the dirt during the fire.
"It was nice to be there yesterday. I like those things. I enjoy it. I like adventure," said Saez, who took part in the operation nattily dressed in a khaki leisure suit and his new Florsheim shoes, which were ruined by mud and water from the Shatt.
Today he worked to get his sailors shipped into Oman, where another Peruvian naval ship is berthed.