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3 Warships Head to Yemen to Bolster Investigative Team

October 17, 2000|BOB DROGIN and DAVID KELLY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

ADEN, Yemen — Three U.S. warships carrying 2,000 Marines steamed toward Yemen on Monday to provide security and support as investigators stepped up the search for forensic evidence and the bodies of 10 sailors aboard the crippled destroyer Cole.

Exhausted work crews stopped most of the flooding from a collapsed internal bulkhead that nearly sank the guided missile destroyer over the weekend, three days after what one U.S. official called a "floating truck bomb" tore a gaping hole near the Cole's engine compartments and killed 17 sailors.

Local security authorities interrogated, and in some cases detained, as many as 75 port workers and other people for possible clues about the bombing of one of the United States' most advanced warships.

The FBI "did not participate" in the detentions or questioning but was aware of them, a bureau spokesman said in Washington.

Also Monday, the Yemeni government reversed its previous claims that the explosion came from within the ship and now considers the blast "a planned criminal act," according to Saba, Yemen's official news agency.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh told U.S. Gen. Tommy R. Franks, commander in chief of the U.S. Central Command, that "preliminary results and important evidence reached by security forces in Yemen . . . indicate it was a planned criminal act," Saba reported.

"The president expressed his deep regret and sorrow for this criminal act against our country and against the United States of America," Saba reported.

Steaming Vessels to Offer 'Hotel Services'

The Navy dispatched three more ships to Aden to assist in security and what officials called "hotel services," including food and berths, for the growing ranks of investigators. The three vessels are the Tarawa, an amphibious assault ship; the Duluth, an amphibious transport dock; and the Anchorage, a dock landing ship.

Their expected arrival Wednesday will bring to six the number of U.S. warships in the harbor. In addition to the Cole, another Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, the Donald Cook, and a guided missile frigate, the Hawes, already are in Aden.

The Cole was rocked by a massive explosion after two men piloting a 20-foot harbor boat pulled alongside just before noon Thursday. The 4-year-old destroyer had just sailed into port and was preparing to take on fuel from a floating dock at the time.

Seventeen U.S. sailors were killed and 39 were injured. Six of the wounded were in stable condition Monday after surgery at a U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany. The other 33 injured were flown Sunday to Norfolk Naval Station in Virginia, the Cole's home port.

The blast hit close to the ship's mess hall for senior enlisted officers. Most of the crew was participating in the docking operation; otherwise, casualties might have been far higher.

As of Monday, the search for witnesses and other hard evidence had provided no clear direction to investigators trying to determine who was responsible for the attack, according to a U.S. official who was briefed on the investigation.

"It's very frustrating," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "We don't know very much. Everything points to terrorism, but we still don't know who."

He said "numerous" groups had claimed responsibility for the bombing. But no conclusive evidence had surfaced to suggest that any of the claims was credible, he said.

"It's warfare on the cheap," said Yonah Alexander, director of the International Center for Terrorism Studies, a private institute in Arlington, Va. "You don't need a $1-billion warship anymore to go eyeball to eyeball with the U.S. Navy."

Weeks of Preparation for Attack, Expert Says

Vincent Cannistraro, former head of counter-terrorism operations at the CIA, said it was clear that the perpetrators needed weeks to prepare and that the attack was planned well before the current Israeli-Palestinian crisis began.

"It's a sophisticated group, no doubt about it," he said. "They needed to assemble a bomb with this explosive power and put it in a shape to penetrate the hull. Then they needed two people as suicide bombers, to prepare them psychologically and religiously to be martyrs. That argues it's a group with a religious bent."

U.S. Navy engineers and divers with heavy metal-cutting equipment spent Monday trying to enter several flooded chambers below the Cole's waterline, as well as areas blocked by crumpled steel and buckled floors and bulkheads.

"It's both to get evidence and to locate and retrieve the missing crew members," a White House official said.

An On-Board Battle to Contain Flooding

The bodies of five sailors had been retrieved and flown back to America. The bodies of two others could be seen in the ship's wreckage but were out of reach. The 10 other sailors remained hidden inside the wreckage.

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