A U.S.-built Iranian warplane fired at least five missiles Wednesday at a Saudi Arabian oil tanker in Saudi waters in the Persian Gulf, causing a fire and extensive damage, the ship's captain and U.S. officials said.
The fifth confirmed commercial shipping attack in the area in two weeks came as spot oil prices rose sharply because of the increased danger of loading petroleum in the Gulf, which provides 20 percent of the West's oil supply.
'There was an extraordinary jump in prices for crude oil and petroleum products on the international spot market early in the day,' said Vincent Sgro, editor of the trade journal Oil Buyers' Guide in Lakewood, N.J.
'The market then went into a tailspin, but prices still are way above Tuesday's level.'
Mobil Corp. and several Japanese oil companies have decided to stop loading tankers at the northern end of the Persian Gulf because of the strife, a company spokesman and a Japanese oil source in the Gulf said.
Other major oil companies said they were watching the situation carefully and could take similar action.
In Washington, the State Department warned the Iranian attack on the Saudi tanker Yanbu Pride represents a dangerous escalation in the 3 -year Gulf War between Iran and Iraq and has caused 'rising concerns.'
U.S. officials said the attack was carried out by an Iranian plane. Pentagon sources described it as a U.S.-built F-4 Phantom. State Department officials said a U.S. Air Force AWACS planes based in Saudi Arabia detected the jet.
CBS News quoted Reagan Administration sources as saying the Saudis scrambled their jetfighters to intercept the attacker but reached the scene too late.
The Saudi tanker Yanbu Pride was attacked in Saudi territorial waters, 60 miles north of Ras Tannurah, the Saudi oil terminal, the Saudi Press Agency and the British Broadcasting Corp. reported. There were no reports of casualties.
'I saw an airplane coming from the starboard side. It fired two missiles,' tanker captain Dimitriou Somoforis told the BBC. 'The first dropped into the water and exploded there.
'The second dropped on the main deck and exploded causing fire,' he said. 'Then he made a round and fired two more, one hit the vessel in the middle destroying the accommodation level and another missed the target.
'Then he came from behind firing one or two that missed the target. By then it was a total confusion and we had a general alarm,' he added.
Iran's House Speaker Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, quoted by the official Islamic Republic News Agency, said 'we have announced that should the oil route become unsafe, then all other routes will be made unsafe.'
But an official of the Iranian Embassy in London, Mohammed Hossein, interviewed on BBC radio denied Iranian forces had carried out the attacks.
'I think this report is complete nonsense,' he said. 'We believe the Iraqis with the cooperation of the Americans have done this attack. They have been carrying out these attacks for the last week.
The Kuwaiti Cabinet accused Iran of attacking two Kuwaiti tankers since last weekend. 'The attacks were carried out by Iranian aircraft operating from an Ianian airport,' the state-run Kuwaiti news agency KUNA said.
Kuwait called an emergency meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which is planned for Saudi Arabia or Qatar on Thursday, KUNA said.
The council groups six Gulf states in a mutual pro-Western defense pact that supports Iraq financially but not militarily.
Iraqi jets have damaged at least two tankers near Iran's Kharg Island oil terminal in the last three weeks. Iraq said it fired at two non-Kuwaiti ships on Sunday but that report has not been confirmed.
The Yanbu Pride is the third confirmed report of a Saudi Arabian tanker attacked in less than a week.
The Hormuz strait at the head of the Gulf is guarded by a U.S. carrier group with orders from President Reagan to keep the strategic waterway open.