WASHINGTON -- The official U.S. account of the downing of an Iranian commercial airliner four years ago came under challenge last night as a news report asserted that U.S. forces provoked the episode.
The attack on the Iranian passenger jet by the U.S. Navy cruiser Vincennes on July 3, 1988, killed 290 people.
A military investigation concluded a month after the incident that the crew of the Vincennes, part of a naval force sent to protect U.S. oil supplies in the so-called "tanker war" phase of the Iran-Iraq war, mistakenly concluded that the aircraft they had spotted taking off from Bandar Abbas, Iran, was hostile.
This occurred even though the aircraft was on a regularly scheduled flight, was flying within the commercial air corridor en route to Dubai and was ascending, not descending as if to attack, as Vincennes officers said they thought.
The new report, a joint effort of Newsweek and the ABC News program "Nightline," was scheduled to be broadcast on "Nightline" last night.
Reagan administration officials said that the Vincennes was in international waters near the Strait of Hormuz when the incident took place. Vice President George Bush told the United Nations that it occurred "in the midst of a naval attack initiated by Iranian vessels against a neutral vessel and subsequently against the Vincennes."
Capt. Will Rogers, who was commander of the Vincennes at the time of the incident, still insists that the Vincennes was outside Iranian territorial waters during the incident. But the reports assert that U.S. naval forces precipitated the naval engagement, drawing the Iranians into combat and creating the tense atmosphere in which the Vincennes mistakenly shot down the airliner.
The accusation that the Vincennes may have precipitated the naval engagement that preceded the shoot-down was first made three years ago by Capt. David Carlson, who was the commander of the frigate Sides, which was deployed in the gulf at the time.
The new reports make several new assertions, among them that the Vincennes was in Iran's territorial waters at the time of the attack and that this fact was covered up by the Pentagon.
In response to the report, the Pentagon's statement last night said: "The Vincennes entered Iranian waters only as a result of its effort to defend itself from the attack of Iranian gunboats as it transited international waters."