- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 8, 2002

AL MUKALLA, Yemen U.S. Navy officers and French agents were being sent here to investigate whether a terrorist attack caused the explosion and fire that raged for hours aboard a French oil tanker, officials said yesterday.
A State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said it looks as though the blast occurred inside the tanker. The damage suggested that "things were blown out" from the tanker instead of the other way around, the official said.
The Yemeni government said Sunday's blaze was an accident caused by an oil leak, but the ship's owner said it was a "deliberate act." French officials said it was too early to rule out terrorism.
"The fire has been extinguished. We believe the explosion happened from within the tanker, but investigations are still under way," a Yemeni official said yesterday on the condition of anonymity.
Strong winds during the night had pushed the tanker, the Limburg, further into the sea and away from its destination, Mina al-Dabah, a port close to the city of Al Mukalla, about 200 miles southeast of the capital, San'a. One of the ship's sides was badly burned and had a hole about 3 feet across.
Officials accompanying journalists on a small boat taken close to the Limburg said it was the only hole. The twisted metal around the hole pointed outward, perhaps an indication that the explosion was inside the tanker.
The intense heat of smoldering crude forced technicians trying to assess the damage to keep their distance from the tanker. Nearby, two tugboats awaited orders to take the tanker to port.
Yemeni Prime Minister Abdul-Kader Bajammal formed a special committee to investigate the blast. The Yemeni official said Yemeni and French investigators would cooperate in the probe.
In Paris, the anti-terrorism section of the prosecutor's office opened a preliminary investigation Sunday, judicial sources said, adding that agents from France's counterterrorism service were to head to Yemen to investigate.
The State Department official said U.S. Navy officers also were being sent to the scene to help with the investigation.
France's foreign minister said the possibility the fire was deliberately set has not been ruled out.
"Nothing has been excluded," Dominique de Villepin told RTL radio.
According to Yemeni officials, the captain of the Limburg said the fire started on his tanker and was followed by an explosion while crewmen tried to get the blaze under control.
In France, officials with Euronav, the company that owns the Limburg, said their understanding was that the captain saw a small fishing boat pulling up to the tanker before the blast at 9:15 a.m. local time. The officials said the fishing boat could not have caused such a huge blast unless it was carrying explosives.
"We believe it was a deliberate act. It was not an accident," Euronav director Jacques Moizan told the Associated Press.
Crude oil futures rose 24 cents on news of the explosion and fire to nearly $30 per barrel early yesterday on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
In 2000, a small boat laden with explosives rammed the USS Cole as it refueled at another Yemeni port, Aden, setting off a blast that killed 17 U.S. sailors.


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