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CRISES IN THE MIDEAST

Water Rushes Into Cole After Power Failure

Yemen: Gathering of evidence halts during successful effort to stem flooding. Port workers and others are detained.

October 16, 2000|PAUL RICHTER and DAVID KELLY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

ADEN, Yemen — As sailors aboard the U.S. warship Cole struggled Sunday to staunch new flooding of its damaged interior and the first injured crew members returned to the United States, Yemeni authorities stepped up their investigation of the apparent terrorist bombing by detaining port workers and other potential witnesses.

Navy officials said they had been forced to temporarily suspend the gathering of evidence because of the latest flooding on board the crippled $1-billion guided missile destroyer.

A power failure on the vessel Saturday night disabled pumps and allowed the water level inside the damaged area of the ship to rise, crushing a bulkhead and flooding compartments, the Navy said.

Power was ultimately restored and an additional pump was brought on board to avert further flooding. "The crew stopped the flooding and saved the ship," Rear Adm. Mark Fitzgerald, who heads the team charged with getting the Cole back to the U.S., told a news conference here.

But the problems forced postponement of a memorial service that was to have been held Sunday morning on the listing deck of the 505-foot-long vessel.

Seventeen members of the ship's 293-member crew were killed and 39 injured Thursday when a small boat carrying an explosive charge nosed up to the Cole during refueling and blasted a hole at least 40 feet by 40 feet in the center of its hull.

Navy officials said it was still unclear Sunday whether the destroyer is structurally sound enough to be towed to the United States or elsewhere.

The Navy also weighed trying to load the destroyer aboard a 700-foot Norwegian-operated transport ship called the Blue Marlin. But loading the destroyer for such a journey can be tricky, the officials said.

U.S. officials said the detentions in Yemen, which several called arrests, were made so authorities could question a number of possible witnesses, including port workers who were helping to moor the Cole in Aden's harbor when the blast occurred.

A White House spokesman, Elliot Diringer, said a "large number" of Yemenis was being held. Reuters news service, quoting a Yemeni official, said the number was in the dozens.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, in an appearance on ABC's "This Week," said that while she believes the inquiry "really is moving," the Yemenis apparently have not yet identified suspects.

One key source of evidence could be surveillance cameras operated by Yemeni port authorities. The video footage could show how the apparent attackers' boat approached the Cole and whether it was part of the group of vessels that were helping the destroyer dock for refueling.

But U.S. Defense Department officials said it was still unclear whether the cameras had relevant images.

Yemeni officials have given mixed signals about their view of the incident, initially rejecting suggestions that the blast was an act of terrorism. Their attitude is considered crucial, because without local cooperation the U.S.-led investigation could be stymied or stalled, as happened with the 1996 terrorist bombing of a U.S. Air Force barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.

As recently as Saturday, the official news agency of Lt. Gen. Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Yemeni president, denied that the explosion was a terrorist act. On Sunday, however, Saleh softened his words, and U.S. officials insisted that the Yemenis were in agreement that the explosion was the work of terrorists.

Barbara Bodine, the U.S. ambassador to Yemen, attended the news conference here with Fitzgerald and said: "It was clearly an external attack, and most probably a terrorist attack. This is going to be a question of fact. Exactly who was behind it, what their motivations were and how they were able to arrange [it] we can only speculate on."

Top U.S. officials have said since Thursday that they believe the explosion was probably a terrorist attack, although they contend that they cannot reach a final conclusion until the investigation is completed.

In the port here Sunday, U.S. military divers piloted a gray boat alongside the giant black hole in the side of the Cole. Carrying welding equipment, the crews dived under the ship and entered a damaged compartment holding the remains of sailors hidden in the bent and tangled metal wreckage.

"Recovering the bodies is still our top priority," said one Defense Department official here. "It's pitch black down there, and they go in and look for bodies, and then the welders have to go in and cut them out."

On the deck of the Cole, investigators have begun to collect "confetti-size" pieces of the explosives-laden boat, which was blown to smithereens by the blast.

One official said the power of the blast suggests that the explosives used were "more than just TNT," which might indicate a bombing carried out by a well-organized and well-supplied group.

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