ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates -- Iranian warplanes attacked a Liberian-registered tanker in the Persian Gulf today, hours after Iraq reported hitting two ships close to Iran's Kharg Island oil terminal.
The State Department said it was believed Saudi planes scrambled to chase off the Iranian F-4 Phantoms and that the vessel was sinking after being attacked in the western part of the Gulf.
The Chemical Venture was 'struck by missiles' inside Saudi Arabian territorial waters near the Saudi oil terminal of Ras Tannoura on its way to Kuwait, the Kuwaiti News Agency reported.
The news agency, quoting shipping sources in Kuwait, said the vessel was attacked from the air 'but it was not clear what damage was sustained.' No further details were immediately available.
In London, Lloyds Intelligence Unit said the 29,427-ton Chemical Venture was hit by a rocket fired by an Iranian Phantom warplane. It said however, the tanker was sailing in international waters 21 miles northeast of the Saudi port of Jubail, 80 miles north of Bahrain. It said shippers had reported seeing two U.S.-built Phantoms flying over the area.
'We have no details of damage, or casualties,' a Lloyds spokesman said.
Quoting shippers in Bahrain, Lloyds said the Chemical Venture sent a distress signal shortly before the reported attack and two Dutch tugs had proceeded to the area.
In Washington, State Department spokesman John Hughes said: 'A Liberian tanker was hit, probably about 10 a.m. this morning our time by an Iranian F-4.' The United States has four sophisticated AWACS spotter planes in Saudi Arabia that can monitor air movements in the region.
'I think a Saudi plane or planes scrambled, chased the Iranian to the midpoint, midline. No contact that we're aware of. First reports seem to suggest ... that the Liberian-registered ship is sinking.' Hughes said.
The Lloyds spokesman said the Iranian attack came a few hours after Iraq reported hitting two naval targets southeast of Iran's Kharg island terminal. He said he could not confirm the Iraqi attacks.
The reported Iraqi attacks on two ships near Kharg Island were in line with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's pledge Wednesday to tighten a blockade of the oil terminal by attacking all ships around Iranian ports in a bid to strangle Iran's oil lifeline in the 44-month-old Persian Gulf war.
The state-run Iraq news agency said the Iraqi warplanes that attacked the 'two large naval targets' returned to their bases safely.
The Iraqi military communique, which did not identify the ships further, said both were 'hit meticulously.'
'The attack is in the realm of Iraq's total siege of Kharg Island and other Iranian ports,' the Iraqi military communique said.
A Panamanian cargo ship carrying steel to Iran was attacked near Kharg Island on Friday and several oil tankers have been damaged in the last month in separate attacks by both Iraq and Iran.
Earlier, Syrian state radio reported a high-level Syrian delegation visiting Tehran secured an Iranian agreement not to escalate the Persian Gulf war.
The report quoted sources in Tehran late Wednesday as saying Syrian and Iranian leaders 'agreed on the necessity of containing the escalation of the war to prevent any imperialist intervention in the region.'
The United States has said it would not stand by and watch the Gulf closed to shipping.
The reported success of the Syrian diplomatic mission came hours after Iraqi President Saddam Hussein said Iraq would step up its tanker war with Iran that has disrupted shipping in the Gulf area, the Iraqi News Agency said.
Claiming Iraq had given 'enough opportunity for all to resolve the conflict,' Hussein said his forces would tighten the noose around Iran and devastate its main oil terminal at Kharg Island in an attempt to destroy 'Iran's economy on land and at sea.'
In the United States, the CBS television network quoted Pentagon sources as saying Iraq has asked France to speed up deliveries of sea-skimming Exocet missiles, which are highly effective against naval targets.
Iraq started the tanker strikes, prompting Iran to declare that if its shipments could not be safe from attacks, those of other Gulf states would also be in danger.
Iran counterattacked with strikes on Kuwaiti and Saudi tankers, widening the conflict and sending insurance rates soaring for ships entering the war zone.
But Syrian radio said Iranian President Ali Khamenei agreed not to expand Iran's aerial war over the Gulf after receiving a message from Syrian President Hafez Assad, which diplomats said was sent at the request of Saudi Arabian ruler King Fahd.
'The letter ... called for containing any escalation of the war and calming the situation between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the states of the Gulf,' the radio said.
In New York, Gulf states asked the U.N. Security Council to condemn Tehran for violating international navigation rights with its recent attacks on shipping, diplomatic sources said Wednesday.
The council is scheduled to begin a debate Friday on the request by Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates.