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Navy frigate rescues Iraqi sailors

ABOARD THE USS CONSTELLATION-A United States frigate patrolling the southern Persian Gulf rescued eight Iraqi sailors on a sinking boat Thursday.

None of the Iraqis were injured and all were taken board the Navy frigate USS Gary. Diplomatic negotiations are now underway to return the sailors to Iraq. The sailors are not considered prisoners of war.

The Gary, normally based in Yokusha, Japan, but operating here with the aircraft carrier Constellation Battle Group, responded to a radio distress call at about 7 p.m. local time of a sinking ship about 15 miles away from where it was patrolling. The Gary quickly launched a helicopter to search for the 30-foot Iraq-based ship, the Kaptain Mohomed, and found it sinking in rough seas about 30 miles off the coast of Iran.

The frigate then launched a small inflatable rubber boat with one Navy swimmer aboard to rescue the crew of the Iraqi ship. Within 20 minutes after the crew members were taken from the Iraqi ship, it sank.

Navy Capt. Mark Balmert, commodore of cruisers, destroyers and frigates in the Constellation Battle Group, said it is not usual for the Navy to assist sailors in need. He said "everyone is a mariner" at sea and the fact that the sinking ship was Iraqi had no influence on the rescue operation. Since arriving in these waters in December, the Constellation's group of vessels has conducted several rescues at sea, but none until Thursday of Iraqi ships.

The Kaptain Mohomed was a wooden dhow, a ship similar to a Chinese junk. Dhows have been used to smuggle oil and other goods out of Iraq. A Navy spokesman said it was too early to say if the ship was involved in any smuggling activity. Communications between the Iraqi crew and the Navy have been limited because of language barriers.