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CNN BREAKING NEWS

Iraqi Vessel Smuggling Oil Sinks

Aired November 18, 2001 - 10:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CO-HOST: We are following breaking news. The story out of the Northern Arabian Gulf. Pentagon officials say at least five people are missing after an inspection team from a U.S. destroyer boarded the sinking ship suspected of smuggling black-market Iraqi oil. Two of the missing are members of that boarding party.

For the latest now, let's turn to CNN's Kathleen Koch at the Pentagon. Kathleen, what do we know?

KATHLEEN KOCH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Martin, what we know now is that these were two sailors who were aboard the USS Peterson. That is a ship that is based out of north of Virginia. It's part of something called "Operation Northern Southern Watch" where U.S. Navy vessels keep an eye on vessels that are coming out of ports in Iraq just in case they're smuggling Iraqi oil.

What happened is that about 8:45 p.m. last night, six members -- excuse me, eight members of USS Peterson Security Team boarded a vessel called "The Samra." It was a merchant ship that weighs about 1,734 metric tons.

The Peterson noticed that it was sitting low in the water, listing a bit and it had bags of grain piled in the upper hold. They boarded the ship suspecting that it may be carrying Iraqi oil. They found that it was carrying indeed 1,700 metric tons of Iraqi oil. Now, we do not know at what point the ship began to sink. We do know that the Iraqi captain of the ship was at the helm at that point.

The Navy cannot tell us exactly where these eight sailors were, if they were in the hold, if they were on the deck. But at this point, six of the sailors were rescued. Two of them remain missing. We have no identification on them. There are three members of the Samra crew who are missing. One member of the motor vehicle, I mean, the merchant vessel Samra was killed in the sinking, and his body has been recovered.

There're also -- there were some members of the MV Samra crew that were recovered safely from the water, some 10 of them, and at this point, there're numerous Navy vessels and five navy vessels as well as a number of helicopters -- Helicopter Support Squadron 2 and Patrol Squadron 9 which have flown in from Bahrain and there're scouring the area in the northern Arabian Sea trying to find these missing sailors and missing crew members -- Martin.

SAVIDGE: So Kathleen, we're saying this is pretty much a tragic accident, not an attack against American personnel?

KOCH: No, not an attack against American personnel. Also, no attack on the part of U.S. navy against this particular ship. Apparently, frequently, what these ships do is load their holds up with as much oil as they can carry and then pile something else on top in the holds to disguise the presence of the oil which often can have them then listing very dangerously low in the water. And in this case, we do not know what set this chain of action into place, the chain of events. But apparently, at this point, just a tragic accident.

SAVIDGE: It still raises the question, why board if it looked dangerous?

KOCH: Absolutely.

SAVIDGE: We'll be back to you, Kathleen Koch, later to get an update on the military operation in Afghanistan.

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