Friday, October 20, 2000

Gen. Zinni defends use
of Yemeni port for refueling

By Sandra Jontz
Washington bureau

WASHINGTON — Despite precarious situations in Yemen and reports of the country’s links to terrorism, the Navy has little choice but to use the Middle Eastern country’s ports for ship refueling, a former senior U.S. military commander said Thursday.

Marine Corps Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, who retired in August as chief of the U.S. Central Command, told lawmakers he takes full responsibility for the decision to use the Yemeni port city of Aden, the site of the deadly terrorist attack a week ago that claimed the lives of 17 U.S. soldiers and wounded 39 others serving on the Navy destroyer USS Cole.

"I pass that buck on to nobody," Zinni told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Also Thursday, Navy officials announced the recovery of the final four bodies of sailors killed in the blast. They are expected to be flown home soon.

Speaking before the Senate committee, Zinni said he led the search for suitable refueling ports in the Middle Eastern region and found Aden to be the port that presented the lowest terrorist threat.

After four visits to Yemen, he supported the contract to use the country’s facilities, despite threats of terrorist unrest, he said.

Since the contract was awarded in December 1998, 25 U.S. Navy ships had refueled there without incident before the attack on the Cole, Zinni said. Two others refueled in Aden before the contract was awarded.

"Why Yemen? It is a strategically important location," Zinni told the senators.

He acknowledged that several other countries in the region have refueling ports, but said each had drawbacks that made them unsuitable.

Sudan, which Zinni said was "obviously not" a choice, long has been embroiled in a civil war and is one of the most prominent breeding grounds for terrorist activity in the region.

Saudi Arabia is not an option because threat conditions are high, especially following the 1996 bombing near Dhahran that killed 19 U.S. troops.

Eritrea was ruled out because the United States does not have military relations with the African country and it is engaged in a civil war with Ethiopia, he said.

The Navy has used Djibouti as a refueling port in the past, but the United States has been working to cut ties with the country in recent years because of its unsatisfactory port conditions and high amount of traffic going in and out of the harbor, he said.

The country of Oman in the Arabian Sea provides a "great potential," but the port is still under development and might be too far in distance to be of any benefit to ship sailing in the Red Sea area, Zinni said.

Using large naval oiler vessels to refuel ships at sea is a problem because the Navy does not have enough of them, Zinni said. The oilers travel with battle groups or large clusters of ships.

The Cole had been traveling on its own from the Mediterranean and was on its way to meet up with the 5th Fleet in the Persian Gulf.

The Navy has reduced the number of refueling oilers from 32, during the peak of the Cold War, to 21.

The Senate Armed Services Committee scheduled hearings Thursday and Friday to look into the decision-making process to use the Yemeni port, as well as whether the crew on the Cole used proper security measures, and if the Navy’s force-protection guidelines need to be revised.

"Did we take more risk than we needed to?" asked Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. "That is a proper oversight of this committee."

Friday’s hearing will be closed to the public because officials will be discussing classified material, including security procedures Navy ships take when docking in foreign ports.

Witnesses scheduled for Friday’s hearing include Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Walter Slocome, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Vern Clark, Commander of the U.S. Central Command Gen. Tommy R. Franks and representatives from the State Department and the intelligence community.

"The American people are entitled to know the facts and understand how these decisions are made, not only as they relate to the USS Cole, but to the deployments of Navy ships, and the in-country deployments of our armed forces throughout the world," said Sen. John Warner, R-Va., Armed Services Committee chairman.

Warner quoted from an April State Department report on global terrorism that stated "the [Yemeni] government’s inability to exercise authority over remote areas of the country continue to make the country a safe haven for terrorist groups."

But Zinni said Warner did not make mention of preceding paragraphs that referred to the Yemeni government’s attempts to curb terrorism, including the execution of individuals convicted of perpetrating the crime.