Monday, October 16, 2000

USS Cole blast 'more than
just TNT,' says official

The Associated Press

ADEN, Yemen A blast more powerful "than just TNT" buckled the USS Cole's deck and turned the attack boat into "confetti size" pieces that rained down on the crippled destroyer, officials said Sunday in accounts that shed light on the enormous devastation of the bombing.

The details, provided by senior U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity, also raised questions about the level of security in a port selected last year as a key refueling point for U.S. warships traveling between the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf.

There has been no credible claim of responsibility from Thursday's apparent suicide attack, which killed 17 sailors, wounded 39 others and punched a 40-by-40-foot chasm in the hull. Yemeni security forces have detained more than a dozen people for further questioning, but no arrests have been announced.

"Now exactly who was behind it, what their motivation was and how they were able to arrange it, that we can't speculate on," said Barbara Bodine, the U.S. ambassador to Yemen.

"The ship has suffered a tremendous blow," said Rear Adm. Mark Fitzgerald, the military commander of the U.S. task force sent to the ship.

On the listing deck of the Cole, crew members gathered for religious services and offered prayers for their dead shipmates some still wedged behind contorted metal below. A planned formal memorial was delayed because the crew worked through the night to control flooding after another bulkhead collapsed, officials said.

Also on Sunday, the plane carrying 33 injured crew members landed at the Norfolk Naval Station in Norfolk, Va.

Wearing donated track suits against the fall chill at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, the sailors gave thumbs-up signs as they boarded the gray C-141 plane taking them to Norfolk. Most were well enough to clamber up the rear ramp, but several were taken aboard on stretchers, including one brought by ambulance to the waiting plane. Six shipmates who were more seriously hurt stayed behind.

The bodies of five of the sailors killed arrived back on United States soil on Saturday.

Defense Secretary William Cohen said there was no doubt that the explosion was an intentional bombing.  "We don't know who did it but ... we're satisfied this was clearly an act of terrorism," he said on CBS.  "We will be relentless in tracking down the individuals or groups who are responsible for this and we will see to it that they are held accountable."

President Clinton's national security adviser defended the Navy's decision to dock ships in Yemen. Sandy Berger said limited fueling options in the Persian Gulf require such stops despite the high risk of terrorism. "This entire area is a high threat area. The military has taken substantial steps in this area," he said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

Berger said 25 ships have refueled in the Arabian Peninsula port of Aden in the past 18 months "without incident."

"Obviously we have to find out what if anything happened in this particular case," Berger said.

U.S. officials believe the ship was the target of a suicide attack from a small vessel packed with powerful explosives. If terrorism is proved, it would be the deadliest such attack on the U.S. military since the bombing of an Air Force barracks in Saudi Arabia in 1996 that killed 19.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said on ABC's "This Week" that she thinks the inquiry is "moving" and the United States is "getting a lot of people in there."

Meanwhile, experts began scouring the ravaged ship in search of clues and the bodies of sailors still missing. Divers began searching water-filled compartments. Crews with powerful metal cutters will try to slice through the wreckage to reach bodies: two visible and 10 still missing and perhaps trapped behind floors and walls bent wildly by the blast.

Terrorism and explosive experts combed through scenes described by a U.S. official as "utter devastation." On the deck, "confetti size" pieces from the wooden attack boat were collected, the official said.

Among the tasks for the investigators: looking for residue that could indicate the type of explosives. One of the officials said the power of the blast suggested "more than just TNT" which could suggest a well-organized and supplied group.

The officials said the blast occurred shortly after the ship was secured to two buoys to begin refueling in the harbor, which was full of pleasure boats, fishing vessels and merchant ships.

About two to three support vessels were around the Cole, including pilot craft and a garbage barge. There was no cry of alarm from the Cole's crew.

Two people on the attack boat reportedly stood at attention briefly before the explosion.

The blast at the waterline was close to the dining area for senior enlisted officers. Most hands were busy finishing the docking. A few minutes later, however, and the mess area would have started to fill.

Immediately after the explosion, the ship began to fill with oily water from the 40-foot deep harbor. The ship listed under the weight of the flood.

The impact wrenched open hatches and buckled parts of the deck on the 4-year-old destroyer, whose modern construction may have helped it say afloat. Power was lost and generators were used to pump out water and keep the Cole afloat. "Heroic efforts were undertaken by the crew ... they saved the ship," said Fitzgerald.

The U.S. Navy has "blanket clearance" to dock at Aden, where it keeps its own stockpile of fuel in cooperation with a private Yemeni company. Normally, a 48-hour advance notice is given of a ship's arrival. The information is passed on to Yemeni port authorities and the fuel agent, officials said.

U.S. diplomats have insisted the Yemeni government is not suspected of any terrorists links. But security has been a key issue regarding Aden, the home base for an Islamic militant group founded by the brother of terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden accused of links to the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people.

The United States keeps a small port-based security contingent in Aden, but relies mostly on Yemeni authorities. At the same time, Washington is eager to strengthen relations with Yemen as another foothold in the Arab world.

The U.S. ambassador, however, dismissed questions that security risks were overshadowed by political objectives when U.S. warships began refueling in Aden in June 1999. About 25 Navy vessels have used the port.

"We obviously ... determined it was safe to come into this port ... if we had specific and credible information to the contrary, the ship would not have come in," said Bodine.

U.S. officials have placed a moratorium on naval stops in Aden for the moment. A final decision will be made once the $1 billion guided missile destroyer is towed away or taken aboard a special carrier vessel. The ship could leave Aden as early as this week.