- The Washington Times - Monday, October 7, 2002

SAN'A, Yemen An explosion and fire engulfed a French oil tanker yesterday off the coast of Yemen, and the tanker's owner said a small boat struck the vessel in a "deliberate attack."
Yemeni officials, however, said there was no indication the tanker was attacked and that the fire was caused by an oil leak. French officials said it was too early to say if the explosion was an act of terrorism.
"We don't have enough elements to allow us to formulate a hypothesis which would point to a terrorist attack," French Foreign Ministry spokesman Francois Rivasseau said last night in Paris.
France will send investigators to Yemen, President Jacques Chirac's office said after Mr. Chirac spoke by phone with Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Yemen's prime minister, Abdul-Kader Bajammal, formed a special committee to investigate.
Yemeni officials said a leak caused the fire on the vessel, named the Limburg, about three miles off the port of Mina al-Dabah.
The Limburg's captain, Hubert Ardillon, said the fire set off an explosion while crewmen tried to get the blaze under control, an unidentified Yemeni official told the state-run SABA news agency. He said efforts were being made to contain oil leakage from the ship.
But Jacques Moizan, director of Euronav, which owns the tanker, said the explosion was a "deliberate act." He said a smaller ship struck the starboard side of the Limburg.
Euronav's financial and administrative director, Alain Ferre, said a crew member saw a fishing boat pull up toward the tanker before the blast at 9:15 a.m. Mr. Ferre speculated it could not have caused such a huge blast unless it was carrying explosives.
Mr. Moizan said he was not sure that the smaller vessel was a fishing boat. "I cannot provide details about the description of the small boat that hit the starboard," Mr. Moizan said. "We believe it was a deliberate act. It was not an accident."
There were also reports that the explosion occurred as a pilot boat was preparing to escort the tanker into Mina al-Dabah.
In October 2000, suicide attackers on a small explosive-laden vessel struck the USS Cole during a refueling stop at Aden port. The blast killed 17 U.S. sailors and was blamed on al Qaeda.
Security has since been tightened at Yemeni ports. Yemen has been eager to emphasize its commitment to the U.S.-led war on terror and shake off its reputation as a hotbed of extremism.
It is believed to have been a longtime base for suspected members of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda, the terror network blamed for the September 11 attacks on the United States, and is the bin Laden family's ancestral home.
The French Foreign Ministry said the Limburg was carrying 25 crew members. Mr. Ferre said the crew included eight French and 17 Bulgarians. One Bulgarian was missing and the rest of the crew were in a hotel in Yemen, he said.
Mr. Ferre said some crew members jumped into the water and were rescued, while others tried to put out the fire until it became clear the flames were no longer under control.
"To our knowledge, there have been no deaths," the French Foreign Ministry said.
A Bahrain-based spokesman for the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, which has aircraft carriers, destroyers and other ships in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea, said the French tanker's fire had prompted no changes in U.S. security measures.
"We are always on a security posture ready for any kind of situation," Lt. Chris Davis said without elaborating.
The Bahrain-based Maritime Liaison Office, which coordinates communication between the U.S. Navy and commercial shipping in the Gulf and Arabian Sea, issued an advisory in September warning ships that al Qaeda might be planning attacks on oil tankers.

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