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French Tanker Explodes Off the Coast of Yemen

Asia: Local and European experts prepare to investigate whether the blast near a port was an accident or a terrorist attack.

October 07, 2002|From Reuters

SANA, Yemen — The French-flagged supertanker Limburg burned in the Gulf of Aden early today as Yemeni and French experts prepared to investigate whether an explosion was an accident or a terrorist attack.

The Yemeni government has ruled out an attack similar to the October 2000 suicide assault on the U.S. destroyer Cole, saying a fire aboard the Limburg caused the blast.

But a director of the ship's owner, Euronav, said he believed that terrorists using a boat could have been responsible for Sunday's blast as the vessel prepared to dock at Mina Dabah, near Mukalla in Yemen.

Yemeni firefighters with foreign help were still trying to put out the raging flames and clean up a massive oil spill fast approaching Mukalla.

Footage of the tanker Sunday showed the bright blaze of a fire in the right side almost concealed by thick black smoke.

Oil industry sources said the tanker was carrying 397,000 barrels of crude oil and had been approaching Mina Dabah to load more oil when a hole was blown in its side.

All but one of the eight French and 17 Bulgarian crew members were accounted for, and Yemeni officials said that at least 17 crew members were in the hospital. Euronav said the missing man was a Bulgarian.

French President Jacques Chirac announced Sunday that French investigators would travel to Yemen to join local experts in examining the tanker. A Yemeni official said the team was expected to be in the Arab state today.

Euronav, a subsidiary of Belgian shipping group Compagnie Maritime Belge, or CMB, said the blast occurred while the Limburg was meeting a pilot vessel to bring it into the port.

"In my opinion, this was a terrorist attack," Euronav director Jacques Moizan said Sunday. "The crew saw a high-speed vessel approaching on the starboard side.... An explosion followed with fire."

Yemeni Transport and Marine Affairs Minister Said Yafai said one of the ship's tanks exploded, igniting the fire.

A Yemeni official quoted the tanker's captain as saying that a small fire on board had set off the explosion.

Capt. Peter Raes, a director of the management companies for CMB, said he doubted the explosion had occurred inside the ship. He said the Limburg's captain told him a witness had seen a small fishing boat approach and collide with the tanker.

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