U.S. and Australian sailors, firing warning shots and throwing smoke grenades, forced their way Wednesday aboard an Iraqi ship that was carrying Arab and Western women on a self-declared relief mission to Iraq, U.S. military officials said.
Iraqi crew members of the 11,000-ton Ibn Khaldoun resisted the boarding and tried to take the sailors' weapons but were subdued in a scuffle that the ship's captain said left four passengers with minor injuries, Army Lt. Col. Greg Pepin told a news conference.An inspection of the ship turned up tons of sugar, prohibited from shipment to Iraq under a U.N.-imposed economic embargo, and the vessel was diverted from its intended Iraqi port of Basra, Navy Lt. Cmdr. John Tull said.
The Ibn Khaldoun was carrying 253 women and children, including three Americans, who told reporters earlier they were on a mission of mercy to bring medicine and powdered milk to the needy children of Iraq.
A Suez Canal Authority spokesman told United Press International last week the ship was inspected when it passed through the canal and was found to be carrying "a normal shipment of sugar."
The Ibn Khaldoun was first intercepted early Wednesday off the Omani coast, in the Arabian Sea at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, by the Australian guided-missile cruiser HMAS Sydney.
According to an initial account provided by Tull, the Iraqi cargo ship was forcibly boarded after defying orders to stop and submit to an inspection, but no shots were reported to have been fired in the encounter.
However, Pepin told reporters during a briefing later in the day that "warning shots had to be fired to get the ship to enable a boarding party to come aboard."
"When boarding party came aboard, several members of the crew attempted to restrain the boarding party, attempted to take their weapons," Pepin said. "At that time, crowd-control measures were used, smoke grenades were used to control the crowd."
He said no lethal force was employed by the boarding party, but that "the captain (of the cargo ship) alleged there were four passengers who had injuries. They were not gunshot wounds. They were very minor in nature."
The multinational force in the gulf enforcing the U.N. embargo against Iraq has inspected thousands of ships since the Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait and diverted dozens of them to neutral ports.
Pepin said the confrontation Wednesday brought to about 10 the number of incidents in which warning shots had to be fired in order to halt a ship for inspection.