Wednesday, October 18, 2000

Bomb-making equipment found
in apartment near Yemeni port

By Brian Murphy
The Associated Press

ADEN, Yemen — Investigators have found bomb-making equipment in an apartment near the port and believe two former occupants may have carried out the suicide bombing that killed 17 sailors aboard the USS Cole, security officials said Tuesday.

U.S. authorities would not comment directly on the disclosure.

But the ambassador, Barbara Bodine, described the investigation as advancing "a quantum leap."

"We are very hopeful we are going to get to the bottom of this," she said.

The Yemeni officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, identified the missing men only as non-Yemeni Arabs. Other Yemeni sources said they were from neighboring Saudi Arabia. But an Interior Ministry spokesman told the state news agency SABA that there was no link to Saudi Arabia.

Moments before the huge blast, two men were seen standing on the deck of a small vessel alongside the destroyer, U.S. authorities said. A 40-by-40-foot hole was blown into the Cole’s hull and the attack ship disintegrated into "confetti size" pieces.

Divers and other crew members, using metal-slicing torches and crow bars, pulled six more bodies from the tangled bowels of the Cole on Tuesday. Officials had earlier said seven bodies were recovered Tuesday, but later corrected the figure. Six victims remained trapped near the blast site.

The officials said the apartment was searched Monday, when Yemen reversed an earlier position and called the blast "a premeditated criminal act." A senior Saudi intelligence official also visited Aden on Monday, but no details of the meeting were made public.

The Yemeni officials also would give no further information on the material found, but said the missing pair arrived in Yemen four days before the Thursday attack. They did not say which country they came from.

Bodine declined to comment on any details of the case or speculate on possible links to larger terrorist groups, including that of Afghan-based Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden.

She did, however, stress that investigators aimed to dig deeply into all aspects of the plot.

"We want this investigation to go further ... to see how far back we can walk this. And those kinds of investigations can sometimes take some time," she said.

The Yemeni find could be a key break on the first day of work for a joint FBI-Yemeni task force. The hunt, however, is already well under way.

So far, Yemeni security forces have interrogated hundreds of port workers and others — including the head of the company that services U.S. warships. Some fragments from the blast were shipped to the United States for analysis by the first FBI agents to arrive after the attack.

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.

Immediate suspicion fell on bin Laden — accused in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people. In retaliation, the United States fired dozens of Tomahawk cruise missiles at his suspected stronghold in eastern Afghanistan.

In his first statement since December 1998, bin Laden said another such attack would not kill him or deter his battle against the "enemies of Islam." He made no direct reference to the Aden attack, but Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers on Monday denied bin Laden was involved.

FBI Director Louis Freeh transferred the investigation from Washington to the command of John O’Neill in the New York field office, which handled the East African embassy bombing cases. But U.S. officials denied this meant they could link the blast to bin Laden at this point.

The full FBI team is expected to swell to more than 100 agents.

Seventy are already in Aden, and 30 others are waiting in Germany for accommodations to be arranged.

"We have not found all the people that may or may not have been behind this," said Bodine. "And for that reason there may very well be people out there. We don’t know where they are. We don’t know who they are." Many Yemenis have said they do not believe the attack was the result of a homegrown plot, and Tuesday’s disclosures put the spotlight on Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden is a Saudi national of Yemeni heritage.

Border disputes have marred relations between Yemen and Saudi Arabia, but an agreement was signed in June to seek a solution.

Yemen has long contested the Saudi claim to three Red Sea islands and parts of the Empty Quarter, a vast desert region with potentially lucrative oil deposits.

Aboard the stricken Cole, wreckage specialists fought their way through collapsed bulk heads and a maze of twisted metal to reach bodies. Above the oily harbor water, blow torches cut slowly through the reinforced steel. Beneath them, in the cavern created by the blast, divers poked slowly through murky passages and fissures.

The divers — some who plucked victims from the doomed TWA 800 flight off Long Island in 1996 — carried tools to try to pry apart the metal trapping the bodies.

The six bodies recovered Tuesday were found above and below the water line, said Rear Adm. Mark Fitzgerald, who is leading naval operations in the area. The cause of death: "trauma from the blast," he said.

Security worries have mounted as more American investigators arrive in a nation described as a "haven" for terrorists by the State Department. Efforts are made to keep most personnel either on other U.S. warships just offshore or in a hotel guarded by Yemeni soldiers and U.S. Marines.

On the horizon sat a three-ship Marine Expeditionary Force capable of mobilizing 2,000 troops backed by AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters and 2,000 troops. Three other U.S. support vessels also are anchored off Aden.

The growing contingent of U.S. military forces and investigators has angered some Arab leaders. Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, speaking on al-Jazeera television broadcast throughout the Muslim world, railed against the American "occupation" of Yemen at a time when it is "besieging" Iraq.

U.S. Navy officials say it could be weeks before the Cole can be raised onto a heavy lift ship and transported back to the United States for repairs.

Nearly a week after the attack, one sailor has confused feelings about the events: drawn closer to her shipmates by the tragedy, but still inwardly wounded.

Lt. Ann Chamberlain, of Washington, D.C., volunteered to accompany 11 injured sailors aboard a French military airlift to Djibouti for treatment.

"I think I’m very fortunate to have gone with those 11," said Chamberlain, now back in Yemen. "Their spirit was amazing. To see that they were hurt and the mood that they were in — so positive — it was so positive for me." But she still has difficulty absorbing the aftermath of the blast.

"The first time I got a chance to sleep for an hour or so ... I woke up and I forgot. It’s weird."