U.S. sailors rescued an Iraqi air force pilot they found Monday drifting on a raft in the Persian Gulf, two days after his fighter plane was shot down by what he believes was an Iranian missile, Pentagon officials said yesterday.
The Iraqi captain, suffering from sunburn and dehydration, told U.S. sailors that he bailed out of his F1 Mirage jet Saturday near Iran's Farsi Island, according to Pentagon officials. Farsi Island is used as a base by Iran's Revolutionary Guards.
U.S. officials said they believe the English-speaking pilot had been participating in bombing raids against Iranian targets. Iraq last weekend ended a 45-day truce in its attacks on Iranian oil and military facilities.
U.S. Navy officials, after consulting with legal authorities, turned the pilot over to the International Red Crescent Society in Saudi Arabia, Pentagon officials said. The Red Crescent Society is the Islamic counterpart of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Because the United States is a neutral party in the seven-year-long war between Iran and Iraq, the Navy crew could not return the rescued pilot to Iraq.
"We have an obligation under international law to ensure that any member of the belligerent forces who is taken aboard one of our warships does not return to the hostilities," the Defense Department said in a statement about the incident. "We had operational requirements of our own to meet and the Saudi Arabian airfield provided the most suitable, neutral location for putting the pilot ashore."
Pentagon officials said the Iraqi air force on Sunday asked the U.S. government for "humanitarian assistance in the rescue" of an Iraqi pilot believed to have bailed out of his aircraft over international waters in the Persian Gulf.
"We, in turn, advised our forces in the area to be on the lookout for a downed airman and to render all possible assistance," the Defense Department said in a statement.
A member of the gun crew aboard the helicopter carrier USS Guadalcanal spotted the airman adrift Monday as the ship was helping escort through the gulf a convoy of Kuwaiti tankers flying the U.S. flag.
The crew of the Guadalcanal dispatched a small boat to rescue the airman and brought him aboard the ship for a medical examination and treatment. Pentagon officials said he was suffering from sunburn and dehydration after two days of exposure to the gulf heat, but described his condition as "good."
He was then flown to Dhahran International Airport in Saudi Arabia and was turned over to the International Red Crescent Society.
On May 17, an Iraqi pilot flying a French-made F1 Mirage fired two Exocet missiles at the USS Stark in the gulf, killing 37 sailors. U.S. officials have accepted Iraq's explanation that the attack was an accident.
The Pentagon also announced that its Middle East force completed the sixth escort of reflagged Kuwaiti ships at 9:45 a.m. (EDT) yesterday as the tankers Chesapeake City and Surf City arrived in Kuwaiti waters in the northern Persian Gulf.
At different points in the three-day passage, as many as six U.S. warships provided protection for the convoy. Sea Stallion helicopters aboard the Guadalcanal conducted mine-hunting operations.
Pentagon officials said yesterday that the United States is considering leasing commercial barges to serve as offshore bases for some of its Persian Gulf operations. Sources said the Pentagon is examining the proposal because Persian Gulf nations are reluctant to allow the United States to base military operations on their soil.
The proposal raises concerns, however, because more U.S. military forces would have to be committed to the region to protect the floating operations, exposing additional U.S. personnel to potential terrorist attacks.
The Defense Department also placed its new commander for the Middle East operations on the aircraft carrier USS Ranger, based in the northern Arabian Sea, officials said yesterday. The Ranger and its six support ships have replaced the USS Constellation carrier group, which is leaving the area.
The USS Missouri battle group of six ships has joined U.S. Navy forces in the northern Arabian Sea, Pentagon officials said.