Iranian Rebels Withdraw; Iran Claims to Repel Iraqi AssaultED BLANCHE , Associated Press
Jun. 22, 1988 6:02 PM ET
NICOSIA, CYPRUS NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) _ Iraq said its troops, backed by helicopter gunships, on Wednesday recaptured two mountain peaks in its northern border region. Iran said it repulsed an Iraqi attack in the area and killed or wounded 3,000 Iraqi soldiers.
Farther south along the countries' 730-mile border, Iranian rebels based in Iraq said they withdrew from the town of Mehran after a three-day offensive, in which they reported capturing military hardware they estimated to be worth $2 billion.
In the Persian Gulf, Iran said its navy destroyed an unidentified Iraqi ship during a clash with ''several enemy vessels'' in the northern end of the waterway. Iraq denied the report.
The offical Iraqi News Agency said Iraqi troops recaptured the heights of Safrah and Basawa in a three-day battle that began Monday. The two mountains are about five miles northwest of Mawat, a town in the Kurdistan mountains of northeastern Iraq.
Iraq said its helicopter gunships flew 337 missions in the battle Wednesday.
The Iraqis last Friday claimed to have recaptured Mawat and several other peaks, all seized by Iran last summer.
Iran reported its fighter bombers on Wednesday ''heavily bombed Iraqi positions and troop concentration sites in the Mawat region.'' The bombing inflicted ''considerable losses in men and equipment,'' said the report by the official Islamic Republic News Agency, monitored in Nicosia.
Tehran radio, also monitored in Nicosia, said Iranian forces on Tuesday destroyed at least 15 tanks and set ammunition dumps ablaze and 3,000 Iraqi troops in the region.
Iraqi forces in recent weeks have driven the Iranians out of territory captured in southern Iraq earlier in the 8-year-old war and have been pressing Iranian forces in the Kurdistan mountains for 10 days.
On April 16, Iraq seized the initiative in the stalemated land war with an assault that recaptured the Faw Peninsula in southern Iraq, ending two years of Iranian occupation.
A sudden Iraqi switch from years of static warfare behind formidable defenses caught the Iranians by surprise. Iraq struck again a month later, driving Iran's forces from their bridgehead around Salamcheh, east of the southern port city of Basra.
Two defeats in a row jolted the Iranians and forced them onto the defensive for the first time since early in the war, which began with an Iraqi invasion in September 1980 after weeks of border skirmishes.
Iran was hit again Saturday night when Iraqi-backed Iranian rebels of the National Liberation Army crossed in the central border sector to capture Mehran, which has been fought over several times and devastated by the war.
Dispatches from Tehran said the three-pronged assault was carried out by Iraqi regulars supported by fighter-bombers dropping chemical bombs, but rebel commander Massoud Rajavi denied the ''hollow claims.''
Statements from the National Liberation Army said 22 of its fighting brigades, including armored units and one made up of women, seized hills around Mehran several miles inside western Iran on Sunday and occupied the town.
Jeffrey Ulbrich, an Associated Press correspondent taken to Mehran by the rebels Sunday, said it was filled with jubilant NLA fighters.
A rebel statement received Wednesday from NLA headquarters in Baghdad said the insurgents withdrew across the border Tuesday night.
The offensive, called ''Operation Forty Stars,'' was the biggest since Rajavi organized the rebel army a year ago around his Mujahedeen Khalq (People's Holy Warriors), the main movement opposed to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
According to the statement, 8,000 Iranians were killed or wounded and more than 1,500 captured in the battle for Mehran, and about 16,000 Iranians were involved. The NLA gave its own losses as 71 killed and 240 wounded.
Iran acknowledged the attack but said it was repulsed with thousands of enemy casualties.
Conflicting claims cannot be reconciled because foreign journalists are not allowed into battle areas except for occasional guided tours like the one on which Ulbrich was taken.
Rebel units using tanks captured in earlier battles cut the main Iranian supply routes in the sector and blew up two bridges. The statement said captured materiel was worth $2 billion and included 40 tanks, 20 armored personnel carriers, scores of 155mm and 130mm artillery pieces, U.S.-built TOW anti-tank missiles and batteries of Hawk anti-aircraft missiles, also American-made.
Reporters taken to the area said roads were jammed with rebel trucks hauling the booty home.
In the Persian Gulf, an American missile cruiser on patrol off Saudi Arabia rescued six crewmen from the Greek oil-rig supply boat Notora, which later sank, U.S. officials reported.
They quoted the captain as saying the Notora apparently foundered because of a leak in its engine room.
Maj. Charles Boyd of the U.S. Central Command said the missile cruiser Halsey went to the Notora's aid after it radioed a distress signal at 10:54 p.m. Tuesday from 40 miles northeast of the Saudi oil port Ras Tanura.