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France vows to protect commercial ships in Gulf

French warships will react with force, if necessary, to halt Iranian attacks against commercial ships in the Gulf, according to the commander of the French task force in the region. Rear Adm. Guy Labouerie told reporters here that French warships would respond to Mayday distress calls from any neutral ships under attack by Iran in the tense waterway. He stressed that such aid would be rendered in the spirit of humanitarian assistance to a ship in distress and in full accordance with international maritime law.

``It is a duty for any ship to answer any Mayday call,'' the admiral says. ``A warship has to help a ship in distress in accordance with international rules.''

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Five days ago the French frigate Dupleix threatened to blast three Iranian speedboats unless they stopped firing rockets at the Liberian-flag tanker Rainbow in the Strait of Hormuz.

In addition, late last month, a French warship responded to a Mayday call in the central Gulf from the Liberian-registered Stena Concordia, which was under attack from an Iranian gunboat.

In both cases, the Iranians cut off their attacks following French intervention.

Such incidents have heightened speculation in the region that the French, Americans, British, and other Western Navies are preparing to expand their warship protection to include neutral shipping in the Gulf's international waters.

In recent months, Iranian Revolutionary Guards operating fast motor launches in the southern Gulf have stepped up attacks on shipping in an effort to harass Iraq's Arab allies, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Despite French, US, and British warship protection and escorts for their own national shipping, tankers and freighters from many other countries such as Liberia, Panama, Singapore, and Norway have remained highly vulnerable to Iranian attacks. Such incidents call into question the effectiveness of Western warships in protecting free navigation in international waters.

Prior to the admiral's comments, France's policy in the Gulf had been understood to be that French warships would protect only French-registered ships. But officials now say French policy all along has been to offer humanitarian assistance to any ships that ask for it, even if intervention might lead to a firefight with Iranian forces.

According to French naval and other sources, during the Rainbow incident last weekend, the captain of the Dupleix warned the Iranian Revolutionary Guards via radio, ``Stop firing or we will shoot.''

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``What the Dupleix did could have been done months ago,'' Admiral Labouerie said. ``But this was the first occasion.''

He said he was surprised more ships under attack hadn't asked for help from French warships recently, adding ``If they don't ask for help, we don't have any reason to help them.''

The statement by the French naval commander comes as US Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci is reported to be weighing an expansion of US warship protection in the Gulf in return for increased financial, logistical, and political assistance from the Gulf Arab states.

Mr. Carlucci has recently stressed that the US Navy's mission remains narrowly-defined as escorting and protecting US-registered ships, including the 11 re-flagged Kuwaiti tankers. But the defense secretary is also said to be considering permitting US warships to comply with international maritime law in responding to calls for help from neutral ships in distress.

The move places Iranian behavior on a par with piracy in international waters. And it points out the humanitarian nature of a broader role for Western warships in battling lawlessness on the seas, while downplaying the national interests and motives of the French, British, and Americans in the region.

Some Gulf analysts say that any broader role for Western warships will lead to a shooting war with Iran. The White House is concerned that a more active role in confronting Iran could trigger a new debate in Congress over the War Powers Act. Such a debate threatens to tie the administration's hands in the Gulf, and elevate Gulf policy to a campaign issue.

The US reassessment of Gulf naval policy comes after the worst year yet in the so-called tanker war with more than 170 ships attacked by either Iran or Iraq. The attacks escalated in 1987 despite the presence of more than 80 Western warships.

The French currently maintain 22 warships, including the aircraft carrier ``Clemenceau,'' and 6,000 French sailors and soldiers in the region. The French defense minister was quoted Wednesday as saying two of three French minesweepers would be withdrawn from the area as a reflection of a perceived decreasing threat of mines in the Gulf.

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