West acts calmly and quickly to counter Red Sea mining
Washington — Three Western nations, together with Egypt, are reacting calmly and deliberately to the threat of mines in the Red Sea. If the aim of the perpetrators of the recent mining incidents was to terrorize or seriously disrupt international shipping, they have not succeeded.
The net result so far of more than a dozen mine explosions over the past two weeks has been harassment, but not much more. A US State Department official said that it could be that nations of the Middle East as well as elsewhere are beginning to take a certain amount of attempted terrorism, or irregular warfare, in stride.
''While the incidents have caused a considerable amount of concern, business has gone on pretty much as usual,'' the official said.
The Defense Department announced Tuesday that it was sending at least four Navy Sea Stallion helicopters to search the Red Sea for mines, at Egypt's request. Egypt was also seeking aid from Great Britain, which has stationed four mine-sweeping ships in the eastern Mediterranean since last March. Both Britain and France are expected to offer assistance. The French maintain a base at Djibouti on the Horn of Africa, not far from the southern entrance to the Red Sea.
Meanwhile, Tehran Radio said Tuesday that the pro-Khomeini ''Islamic Jihad'' terrorist group claimed responsibility for mining the Gulf of Suez and the Red Sea. The Iranian radio praised the attempt to disrupt navigation in the region.
Monitored in Kuwait, Tehran Radio called the mining a blow against ''arrogant powers,'' including the United States, Britain, and France.
The Islamic Jihad, or ''holy war,'' organization has claimed responsibility for a number of attacks over the past two years, including the suicide truck bombing of the US Marine headquarters in Beirut last October.
''All the arrogant powers are helpless, unable to save dozens of ships facing destruction in the Gulf of Suez and Red Sea every day,'' Tehran Radio said.
The radio said these powers had been ''unable to do anything except watch thousands of tons of their merchandise sink into the waters of the Red Sea.''
But until now at least, none of the 14 ships that reportedly struck mines in those waterways has been sunk. Press reports Monday indicated that the 41,000 -ton, Liberian-registered Oceanic Energy, sailing from Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, had been damaged in an explosion in the south-central area of the Red Sea and was sinking. But a Defense Department spokesman, Assistant Secretary Michael Burch, said at a Tuesday briefing that the blast that damaged the ship appeared not to have been an explosion caused by a mine.
''It was some sort of an explosion internal to the ship and not external, and that would rule out a mine,'' Mr. Burch said.
The spokesman also asserted that the blast that damaged the Oceanic Energy seemed to have been completely unrelated to the 14 reported mining incidents.
One reason for calm international reaction to the incidents was that despite the Tehran Radio claims the mines appear to have been designed to harass rather than sink ships.
An indication of the business-as-usual reaction to the incidents in Egypt was President Hosni Mubarak's decision Monday to go ahead with a four-day trip to Yugoslavia. Another indicator of calm international reaction: The insurance underwriters at Lloyd's of London have not raised insurance rates for vessels plying the Red Sea.
The Red Sea is a major passageway for commercial shipping which links the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. Oil tankers small enough to transit the Suez Canal pass through it. The Red Sea also carries large numbers of Muslims to Saudi Arabia for the annual pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina.
For Egypt, the Suez Canal serves as a major source of revenue.
So far, no one has been able to trace the origin of the mines involved in the incidents of the past two weeks. But speculation in Washington has centered on the likelihood that Iran or Libya - or both - were behind the incidents.
In the past Iran has protested Egypt's ties with the United States and its aid to Iraq in its war against Iran. The Tehran Radio broadcast praising the mining and supporting the Islamic Jihad organization seemed to implicate the Iranians.
But some State Department officials are convinced that there may be a Libyan link to the minings. Libya's leader, Col. Muammar Qaddafi, has long been hostile to Egypt. And a State Department official said that a Libyan ship passing through the Red Sea recently spent ''much more than the normal length of time on station'' in that waterway. The ship could have been dropping mines, he said.