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French Open Probe Into Tanker Blast

Mideast: Yemeni officials continue to reject theory that the explosion was deliberate.

October 08, 2002|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PARIS — French counter-terrorism prosecutors opened a preliminary investigation Monday into the explosion on a French oil tanker off the coast of Yemen, but other officials said the blast was an accident.

The explosion Sunday morning near the port of Mina Dabah caused a massive fire in the tanker Limburg and left a crewman missing.

French diplomats in Yemen initially said they suspected a deliberate act. The tanker's captain said in media accounts that he saw a small boat approaching just before the explosion. And the owners of the ship, a Belgian company, said the damage was at the water line, suggesting a blast caused by an external source such as a boat carrying explosives.

The counter-terrorism section of the Paris public prosecutor's office opened its inquiry Monday as investigators from the DST counter-terrorism agency, the navy, the Transport Ministry and other agencies hurried to Yemen.

"It resembles an attack," said a judicial official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It appears that the report of a small boat in the vicinity of the tanker has been confirmed. The captain said he saw the boat disappear in the explosion. But it is still impossible to confirm whether it was an accident or intentional."

Yemeni officials discounted terrorism from the start. Yemen's minister of transport and marine affairs, Capt. Said Yafai, reiterated the denials Monday. He said the initial probe indicated that the explosion had come from within the tanker, which carried about 400,000 barrels of Saudi crude oil.

French diplomats were cautious regarding the cause of the blast.

"No possibility is being excluded," Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said in a radio interview. A Foreign Ministry spokesman said a vice consul in Yemen who had spoken of an apparent attack was expressing an opinion, not the official position.

Law enforcement experts have warned for months about the possibility of a terrorist strike intended to disrupt oil shipments in the Middle East, a region racked by the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks and tension over the U.S. confrontation with Iraq.

The context of the tanker explosion contributed to suspicions: It occurred six days before the second anniversary of the bombing of the U.S. Navy destroyer Cole in Yemen. Seventeen U.S. sailors died in the attack, which was blamed on Al Qaeda terrorists using a small boat packed with explosives.

Terrorists from Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network often choreograph the timing, place and method of attacks to send symbolic messages, a senior French law enforcement official said Monday. But he cautioned that it was too early to draw conclusions about the tanker explosion.

The U.S.-led hunt for Al Qaeda suspects has focused recently on Yemen, the ancestral homeland of Bin Laden. U.S. authorities in Yemen were following the tanker case closely.

John Balian, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Sana, the Yemeni capital, said there were indications that an electrical malfunction aboard the ship could have been the cause. "It's all speculation at this point," he added.

A French military task force was reported to have boarded and secured the ship and towed it farther out to sea to keep any further spillage as far from the coast as possible. Most of the ship's oil is still inside intact containers.

Twenty-four members of the 25-man crew--a mix of French and Bulgarian sailors--were rescued Sunday, but one Bulgarian was still reported missing late Monday.

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Times staff writer Mitchell Landsberg in Cairo contributed to this report.

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