UNITED NATIONS--Iran said yesterday that the USS Vincennes did not warn an Iranian airliner before shooting it down, but Vice President George Bush responded in the Security Council that the warship fired in self-defense.
Foreign Minister Ali-Akbar Velayati of Iran called the destruction of Iran Air 655 and the 290 civilians aboard July 3 "the most inhumane military attack in the history of civilian aviation...a barbaric massacre."
Bush said Iran should not have sent the Airbus into a Persian Gulf battle zone. The Vincennes and the USS Elmer Montgomery had skirmished with Iranian attack boats just before the jetliner entered the area.
The vice president, who said he was delivering "the free world's case," called the destruction of the airliner a "terrible human tragedy" but said the United States has a "legal right" to protect Persian Gulf shipping lanes.
"We have made it clear that we will keep the gulf open, no matter what the threat," he said. "We will not alter out course."
The United States says the Airbus A300 did not respond to repeated questioning by the Vincennes about its identity and the cruiser's captain believed it was an Iranian F-14 fighter transmitting ambiguous signals and descending in attack pattern.
In a detailed, two-hour speech, Velayati said the Airbus never heard warnings from the Vincennes, the plane transmitted only unambiguous civilian signals, it remained in the recognized international air corridor and was climbing when the missiles were fired.
"Every available evidence...shows that the pilot of the airliner did not receive any warning," he told the 15-member council.
Iran requested the council meeting to seek condemnation of the U.S. action and demand withdrawal of all American forces from the Persian Gulf, but has been unable to enlist a majority to support a resolution.
It had boycotted the Security Council previously, claiming it was biased against Iran in the Iran-Iraq war.
The meeting was adjourned after Velayati and Bush spoke, and neither commented later on the other's speech. The council session, with at least 15 speakers scheduled, is to resume at 10:30 a.m. Friday and U.N. officials said it could last through the weekend.
It was Bush's first speech to the council since he was Washington's U.N. ambassador in 1971-1973.
An appearance by a U.S. vice president is rare. U.S. officials said the purpose was to lend weight to U.S. arguments about the tragedy and emphasize the need to end the 8-year-old war.
Observers said the speech by Bush, the certain Republican nominee for president, would emphasize his foreign policy credentials and statesmanship.
Bush did not dwell on details of the event in his 30-minute address, but defended the U.S. presence in the gulf and the decision of the ship's captain. He urged Iran and Iraq to accept a year-old, U.N. cease-fire resolution immediately.
"The critical issue confronting this body is not the how and why of Iran Air 655," Bush declared. "It is the continuing refusal of Iran to comply with Resolution 598, to negotiate an end to the war with Iraq and to cease its acts of aggression against neutral shipping in the Persian Gulf."
"I will not dignify with a response the charge that we deliberately destroyed Iran Air 655," the vice president.