Iranians pulled the bodies of men, women and children from the Persian Gulf Monday and vowed to avenge "premeditated, coldblooded murder" after the U.S. Navy shot down an Iranian jetliner carrying 290 people.
The United States said its forces mistook the wide-bodied Iran Air Airbus for a F-14 fighter and shot it down Sunday when it failed to heed seven warnings.Iran said all aboard were killed and proclaimed Monday, the Fourth of July, a day of mourning.
Iranian President Ali Khamenei said in an interview Monday on Tehran Radio, monitored in Nicosia, that Iran is "ready to fight American aggression." He said, "We wish to warn that the American government will have to suffer the consequences of its recent crime in the Persian Gulf." He did not elaborate.
The official Islamic Republic News Agency said Monday 168 bodies had been recovered, including at least 38 foreigners. It listed them as 12 United Arab Emirates citizens, eight Indians, eight Pakistanis, six Yugoslavs, two Kuwaitis and Italian and an Afghan. Airline officials said the rest of the passengers were Iranians.
The casualty toll of 290 would make it the sixth-worst commercial air disaster in history (See list on A2).
"The criminal United States should know that blood unlawfully shed in the disaster will be avenged in the same blood-spattered sky over the Persian Gulf," Tehran Radio said in an earlier broadcast also monitored in Nicosia.
It accused the United States of directly aiding Iraq, Iran's enemy in the nearly 8-year-old gulf war. The United States says its warships are in the gulf to keep international sea lanes open to neutral shipping.
Iran's Foreign Minister, Ali Akbar Velayati, said in a message to U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar that the world body should "openly condemn the perpetrator of this atrocity," IRNA said.
Iran Air flight 655 was on a routine 150-mile flight between Iran's coastal city of Bandar Abbas and Dubai, across the gulf in the United Arab Emirates. IRNA said the jet left Bandar Abbas, where Iran has a big naval and air base, at 10:15 a.m. Sunday.
Two U.S. missiles hit the Iran Air jet 15 minutes later and the plane exploded at an altitude of 7,500 feet, IRNA said.
Adm. William Crowe, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the plane was outside the prescribed commercial air corridor.
Crowe said the Iranian jetliner flew directly at the USS Vincennes as the warship exchanged fire with several of Iran's Boghammar gunboats in the Strait of Hormuz, entry to the gulf.
The cruiser and a smaller U.S. frigate, the USS Elmer Montgomery, fired 5-inch guns at the boats, sinking two and damaging a third, the Pentagon said.
Crowe said the Vincennes fired two Standard surface-to-air missiles at the airliner seven minutes after it was detected by radar. During the seven minutes, the jetliner ignored three warnings on a civilian distress network and four on a military distress network, he said.
The gulf air corridor is one of the world's busiest, despite the hazards of flying over the waterway where Iran and Iraq have been at war for nearly eight years.
Crowe defended the Vincennes' commander, Capt. Will C. Rogers III. He said Rogers believed his ship was in jeopardy and thought the incoming aircraft was an F-14, the most lethal plane owned by Iran.
In the aftermath of the Iraqi attack on the USS Stark in May 1987, U.S. military commanders in the region were placed under new rules of engagement requiring them to take faster action when threatened.
Crowe expressed "deep regret" over the loss of life but said Rogers and other commanders in the area "acted with good judgment."