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Cole Inquiry Widens--and Is Far From Over

Yemen: Officials show the house where bomb-making equipment was seized. Two men who lived there reportedly spoke with Saudi accents.

October 22, 2000|DAVID KELLY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ADEN, Yemen — The U.S. ambassador to Yemen said Saturday that the hunt for those responsible for the suicide bombing of the guided missile destroyer Cole was expanding but was far from reeling in any suspects in the Oct. 12 blast that killed 17 sailors and wounded 39.

"I will tell you that we are a long way from any conclusions. We are a long way from any preliminary conclusions," Barbara Bodine said. "There are a lot of rumors going around, but . . . we know neither who, how, to a certain extent where and certainly not why."

Reporters were taken by Yemeni authorities Saturday to the small one-story house where police seized bomb-making equipment earlier last week. The house near the port was nearly surrounded by a low wall. In the yard was a concrete tank of the kind used to test boat motors.

A bearded man standing nearby said the two men who had been living in the house, neither of whom had returned since Oct. 12, had Saudi accents. Neighbors have said that the men liked to play soccer with children in the area and that they had a boat they were working on inside the walled courtyard. The two also have been described as non-Yemenis who spoke like Gulf Arabs and were about 28 years old.

The Cole was refueling in the Port of Aden when a small boat approached it and exploded. The blast ripped a 40-by-40-foot hole in the side of the warship, which remains listing in the harbor and is expected to be hauled away by the end of the month.

Both Yemeni law enforcement and FBI officials had earlier examined the house where the bomb-making equipment was found. The men who rented it also reportedly had rented another house not far away where neighbors said they heard sounds of banging and welding.

Investigators say the bomb that tore into the Cole was an estimated 600-pound, high-grade explosive device carefully packed to cause maximum damage to the ship's half-inch-thick armor-plated hull.

Officials believe that the bomb was placed inside a boat, which was taken to a spot near a bridge and lowered into the water for its final journey toward the Cole.

Bodine said investigators had many leads and expected to raid other locations. She said there were no "dead ends or cold trails," but she would not say whether the investigation was expanding from Yemen to other nations.

"The basis of evidence has been expanding," she said. "I'm not going to give it any geographic parameters at this point."

Although no arrests have been made, a number of people have been detained, including the men's landlord and the real estate agent for the property.

A prime suspect is Osama bin Laden, a wealthy Saudi militant born to a Yemeni father. His family has business links inside Yemen, and he has been indicted in the United States in connection with the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Bin Laden also has openly criticized the Yemeni government for allowing U.S. Navy ships to refuel in Aden.

Western intelligence agencies believe that Bin Laden spends most of his time in Afghanistan. But he has strong contacts within Yemen's tribal region of Hadramawt, a wild and rugged slice of land. Many Saudis come from Hadramawt, and Yemeni news reports say documents found in the car that apparently dropped the boat into the harbor came from that region.

Bodine has spoken often of her desire that the U.S. leave only a "small footprint" in this fractious nation, so as not to attract unfavorable attention in the Arab world or create a larger target for potential terrorists still operating in the region. But despite efforts by American intelligence, the military and civilian law enforcement officials to move around discreetly, their presence is impossible to overlook.

The Aden Hotel, where most of the Americans are based, has entire floors dedicated to U.S. military intelligence, FBI operations, Navy divers and quarters for Marines and foreign journalists. Saudi diplomats and royalty hover around the lobby in white robes and red head coverings. They have been visiting the hotel ever since the blast and insist that they are here "sightseeing," but a senior U.S. government official said, "I doubt their presence here is a coincidence."

Bodine said the Navy's initial inaccurate estimate of how long the Cole had been in the harbor before the explosion was the result of human error in a rapidly unfolding situation.

First reports said the Cole had been in port barely an hour before the blast. But the Navy said Friday that the ship had been docked in the harbor for nearly two hours before the bomb went off.

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