Iraq said yesterday that its forces had captured Iran's oil minister and other officials in a "special operation in the gulf war zone" and had taken him to Baghdad. Iran confirmed the capture of Mohammed Javad Tondguyan, the highest ranking prisoner of the six-week-old Persian Gulf war.
The official Iraqi News Agency quoted Iraq's High Command as saying Tondguyan was captured by a "special Iraqi patrol" in an ambush Friday. Tondguyan, 30, is a petroleum technologist who was understood to be quite familiar with oil facilities in the Shatt-al-Arab waterway region that have become a major target of the Iraqi war effort.
The official Tehran radio, in a statement attributed to the prime minister's public relations office, said that Tondguyan, along with Deputy Minister Behruz Bushehri and other Oil Ministry and port officials had been "seized by the Iraqis near Abadan."
"The government is honored to find its officials ambushed alongside the people while safeguarding the glorious revolution," Tehran radio said, adding that all Iranian officials were "ready to sacrifice their lives."
The radio said the group was "traveling on a minor road to the besieged city of Abadan to encourage and commend the brave workers of the oil installations when they were attacked by Saddam's [Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's] mercenaries, kidnaped contrary to international regulations and taken to Iraq."
Tondguyan is the only senior official from either country known to have been captured or injured in the war, which began Sept. 22. Most of the known casualties have been soldiers or civilians living in the war zone.
The announcement of the capture of Tondguyan came as fighting continued on several fronts in the southern Iranian oil province of Khuzestan and as Pope John Paul II criticized both sides for attacks on "defenseless . . . populations" and called for a negotiated settlement of the war in a manner respecting" human rights and national and territorial integrity" of the two countries.
"Unfortunately the world's public opinion seems to get easily used to such episodes of terrible destruction," the pontiff told a crowd of 25,000 gathered in St. Peter's Square for his Sunday blessing.
"I do not want to forget the victims of the war that Iraq and Iran have been waging for several weeks now with bloody clashes between the armies and bombings of defenseless cities and populations.
"We invoke the Lord for help to reawaken the desire to resolve the conflict with negotiations, respecting human rights and national and territorial integrity of the countries involved."
Meanwhile, military communiques from both warring nations said Iraqi soldiers used a mobile bridge across the Bahmanshir River to try to breach Abadan's defense in the city's eastern suburbs. Tehran radio said Iranian troops "fought with all their might to stop the enemy advance." On Saturday Iran said its troops in Abadan destroyed a similar mobile bridge and killed 200 Iraqi soldiers.
Abadan, located on the Shatt-al-Arab waterway at the northern tip of the Persian Gulf, has been pounded by Iraqi aircraft, gunboats and artillery. The port city has remained in Iranian hands despite repeated Iraqi predictions its fall was imminent.
Tehran radio also reported fighting near Ahwaz, 80 miles north of Abadan. It said Iranian soldiers supported by fighter-jets destroyed 20 tanks and killed "at least 100 invading Iraqi soldiers."
Iranian planes also bombed Iraqi's artillery positions west of Iran's major army garrison city of Dezful, an Iranian communique said.
Iraq already has claimed Abadan's railway, highway, pipeline and sea links with the rest of Iran have been cut off, and Iraqi forces have overrun Iran's major shipping port of Khorramshahr, 10 miles northwest of Abadan on the Shatt-al-Arab.
The capture of Abadan would strengthen Iraq's position on the waterway, Iraq's only outlet to the Persian Gulf, through which much of the world's oil moves.
A midday communique issued in Baghdad said 76 Iranian troops were killed and seven tanks and three armored personnel carriers destroyed in 12 hours of fighting in the Abadan front from Saturday evening to Sunday morning.
The communique said 32 Iraqi soldiers were killed and two tanks destroyed with one raiding Iraqi Mig jet fighter downed near Abadan.
Meanwhile, a commission of the 94-nation nonaligned movement assembled in Belgrade to prepare a peace-making shuttle between Baghdad and Tehran.