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Tuesday, January 8, 2008       Free Headline Alerts

Iran swarm incident 'most serious provocation of this sort that we've seen yet'

WASHINGTON — The United States reported its first confrontation with Iran in the Persian Gulf in an incident followed by the crash of two U.S. fighter jets in the Gulf.

In its first such report, the Defense Department said five Iranian fast attack craft confronted three U.S. Navy vessels. The Pentagon said the 20-minute incident took place early on Jan. 6 in the Straits of Hormuz, Middle East Newsline reported.

U.S. officials said the Iranian naval maneuvers demonstrated Teheran's new swarm strategy, the use of fast boats to overcome much larger U.S. vessels. They said a battle nearly erupted between the U.S. Navy and Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

"It is the most serious provocation of this sort that we've seen yet," an official said.

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"Small, Iranian fast boats made some aggressive maneuvers against our vessels and indicated some hostile intent," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said on Monday. "This required our vessels to issue warnings and conduct some evasive maneuvers. The U.S. Navy vessels were prepared to take appropriate actions, but there was no engagement of the vessels."

Iran dismissed the reported confrontation. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammed Ali Hosseini said the Iranian Navy appeared to have misidentified the U.S. ships — two U.S. Navy destroyers and one frigate.

"That is something normal that takes place every now and then for each party, and it is settled after identification of the two parties," Hosseini said.

Hours later, the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet said two F/A-18 fighter-jets crashed in the Gulf on Monday. The Fifth Fleet, based in Manama and responsible for patrols in the region, said there were no fatalities.

"Teams from USS Harry S. Truman [CVN 75] rescued all three aviators after two F/A-18 Super Hornets crashed during operations in the Arabian Gulf Jan. 7,"the Fifth Fleet said. "The cause of the accident is under investigation."

Iran was not cited as a possible cause for the air crash. Over the last year, Iran acquired advanced air defense systems from Russia.

U.S. Fifth Fleet commander Vice Adm. Kevin Cosgriff, who also commands U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, said five IRGC high-speed boats arrived from the north and confronted the U.S. ships. Cosgriff said the IRGC naval force split and headed toward both sides of the U.S. formation, identified as the USS Port Royal, USS Hopper and USS Ingraham.

"The five boats approached the U.S. formation on its starboard bow in international waters slightly inside the Gulf from the apex of the strait," Cosgriff said. "The groups maneuvered aggressively in the direction of the U.S. ships."

At one point, Cosgriff said, the IRGC boats came within 500 meters of the U.S. ships. Two of the Iranian FACs dropped white box-like objects in the path of the USS Ingraham.

"The [U.S.] ships received a radio call that was threatening to our ships to the effect that they were closing our ships and that the U.S. ships would explode," Cosgriff said.

Officials said the U.S. Navy has sought to maintain two carrier strike groups in the Gulf. They said the navy has been on alert for an attack by IRGC, which took over Gulf operations from the Iranian Navy in June 2007.

"This is reckless and dangerous behavior on the part of the Iranian vessels, and it should cease immediately," Whitman said.

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