Tuesday, October 17, 2000

Aden port workers questioned;
Yemen calls blast 'criminal act'

By Brian Murphy
The Associated Press

ADEN, Yemen — Yemeni security forces on Monday interrogated dozens of port workers and others — including the head of the company that services U.S. warships — as divers struggled to retrieve more bodies from the mangled USS Cole wreckage where 17 Americans died last week.

The chief of the U.S. Central Command, Gen. Tommy Franks, toured the listing destroyer on Monday to offer support to the crew, exhausted after battling all weekend to keep their badly damaged ship from sinking. In the United States, 13 injured sailors were released from a Virginia hospital by Monday afternoon, and more were expected to follow.

But in Aden, the port city where apparent suicide bombers attacked the Cole on Thursday, the focus was on identifying those behind the blast.

Ahmed al-Mansoob, general manager of the Al-Mansoob Commercial Group that provides food, supplies and garbage pickup to the U.S. warships, was released Monday after two days of questioning. The two crew members of the garbage barge assigned to the Cole were also brought in and later freed.

Al-Mansoob would not speak to reporters. But Abdullah Al-Khalaqi, marketing director for the Yemeni company, denied any connection to the attack last week that killed 17 American sailors.

"No one here is an extremist," he said in an office filled with caps, mugs and notes of thanks from visiting U.S. ships.

"Most of our employees are relatives," said al-Khalaqi. "For others, we rely on word of mouth to see if someone is a good man." Several people remained in a highly guarded camp on Aden’s outskirts, but it was unclear whether they were considered suspects in the explosion that tore a 40-by-40-foot hole in the destroyer.

Yemen now considers the blast "a premeditated criminal act," according to SABA, the official Yemeni news agency, a reversal of an earlier position and a crucial boost to the investigation.

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s backing is vital for FBI agents and other U.S. terrorism experts to work closely with Yemeni authorities.

Saleh met with Franks to review military cooperation and evidence gathered by Yemeni security forces, SABA said.

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

There has been no credible claim of responsibility for the deadliest terrorist attack on the U.S. military since the 1996 bombing of an Air Force barracks in Saudi Arabia that killed 19.

"We will track them down," Defense Secretary William Cohen said. "We owe that to the families." Franks toured the Cole on Monday and spoke with the crew, which finally seemed to have gained the upper hand in keeping the warship afloat. Until dawn Sunday, they had continued to try to bail out a flooded bulkhead, with electrical shorts knocking out power. At one point, they jury-rigged a pumping system from port side fire fighting equipment.

By Monday, most flooding was contained and conditions on board improved.

"Heroic efforts were undertaken by the crew ... they saved the ship," said Rear Adm. Mark Fitzgerald, head of the U.S. task force at the ship.

Lt. Terrence Dudley, a spokesman for the U.S. 5th Fleet, said electricity and air conditioning had been restored. Temperatures have been in the 90s.

Only five of the victims have been recovered. Divers searched water-filled compartments and crews with powerful metal cutters would try to slice through the wreckage to reach the others: two visible and the 10 still missing and perhaps trapped behind floors and walls wrenched apart by the blast.

The inability to quickly reach the bodies of the missing crew members showed the extreme difficulties facing underwater teams trying to thread through a maze of jagged wreckage and collapsed compartments in the murky, oil-filled harbor.

"The divers are working in a touch and feel kind of mode," Fitzgerald said. "So it’s a slow process and that’s the real problem. It’s slow going." In Germany, James Rundell, deputy director of the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, said two badly injured victims will remain in a military hospital there for at least another week, while four sailors will likely return to the United States on Tuesday or Wednesday. Thirty-three other injured sailors returned to the United States over the weekend, and 13 were released from a Virginia hospital by Monday afternoon.

Thursday’s explosion was so powerful it buckled the deck and turned the attack boat into "confetti size" bits, an official said.

Immediate suspicion fell on terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden — accused in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people.

Bin Laden, who has been living in Afghanistan since 1996, has denounced Yemen for allowing U.S. ships to refuel at Aden, near the southwestern tip of the Arabian Peninsula.

But Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers denied bin Laden was involved.

"We have already said that Osama has no communications and cannot do anything from inside Afghanistan," Taliban Information Minister Qadratullah Jamal said in Kabul, the Afghan capital.

The London-based newspaper Al-Hayat quoted a Muslim fundamentalist leader as saying the attack was carried out by the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army, which bin Laden’s brother helped create.

Mustafa Kamel, also known as Abu Hamza al-Masry, said the group was upset with bin Laden for refusing to strike at Yemen, the newspaper reported.

As of Monday, the FBI was having trouble getting its entire contingent of explosives experts, evidence technicians and investigators to Yemen, according to two federal law enforcement officials in Washington.

The officials said about 30 FBI agents had reached Yemen and were arranging facilities to accommodate the larger group. More than 70 FBI agents remained at the U.S. Air Force base in Ramstein, Germany, awaiting a flight to Yemen.

The ability of the attack vessel to come alongside the Cole undetected has left U.S. officials on the defensive. They insist security levels were adequate at the port, which became a refueling point for U.S. warships last year. About 25 Navy vessels have used Aden.

"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," Ambassador Barbara Bodine said Sunday.

U.S. officials have suspended naval stops in Aden for the moment.

The Cole will have to be moved from the port for major repairs.

A U.S. defense official said the trip could begin in as soon as a few days.