Alert for ‘Iraqi tankers’ off Crete

The coast guard has been placed on high alert following a warning from US authorities that three fuel tankers believed to have sailed from a Middle Eastern port with top Iraqi government officials on board could be heading for Greek waters, sources said yesterday. Also yesterday, US Ambassador Thomas Miller asked Defense Minister Yiannos Papantoniou for Greece to send military medical personnel and stores to US and British-occupied Iraq. Sources said Papantoniou avoided committing himself, arguing that participation in such a mission would hinge on whether the overall effort is organized by the United Nations. Meanwhile, coast guard sources said air and sea patrols have been stepped up in response to the US tanker tip-off. It is believed that senior Baath party officials, together with members of their families, may have managed to escape US and British forces that entered Baghdad and Basra, and boarded the tankers in an unspecified port belonging to an Arab country. The ships, according to information made available to the coast guard, are heading for a European Union port, and will probably pass through international waters south of Crete within the next few days. However, if US and NATO warships patrolling the area manage to locate the tankers, it is believed that the ships could enter Greek territorial waters. Coast guard vessels, including patrol boats equipped with state-of-the-art electronic tracking devices and manned with special forces, have already set off for Crete from the eastern Aegean. The coast guard is also in close cooperation with the Greek navy and NATO officials.