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Archive for Sunday, October 15, 2000

Blast clues point to terrorism

October 15, 2000

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— With the wounded safe and the bodies of five of the 17 dead sailors back on American soil, dozens of investigators descended on this port city Saturday to determine whether it was terrorists who attacked the USS Cole as it sat in a Yemeni harbor.

Lt. Terrence Dudley, a U.S. Navy spokesman in Aden, said 40 FBI agents and Department of Defense specialists from Washington's Foreign Emergency Support Team arrived in the city Saturday, joining a few experts already in place. Their mission: "advise, assist and assess" a probe that began almost immediately after Thursday's explosion, Dudley said.

An unidentified U.S. sailor is carried on a stretcher down the
gangway of a cargo plane at Rhein-Main Air Base near Frankfurt,
Germany. The soldier is part of a group of wounded who arrived
Saturday from Aden, Yemen. The injured were being taken by bus to
Landstuhl, about 60 miles southwest, for evaluation and treatment.
Seventeen sailors died and 33 were injured in the explosion on the
USS Cole while it was refueling Thursday in the Yemeni port of
Aden.

An unidentified U.S. sailor is carried on a stretcher down the gangway of a cargo plane at Rhein-Main Air Base near Frankfurt, Germany. The soldier is part of a group of wounded who arrived Saturday from Aden, Yemen. The injured were being taken by bus to Landstuhl, about 60 miles southwest, for evaluation and treatment. Seventeen sailors died and 33 were injured in the explosion on the USS Cole while it was refueling Thursday in the Yemeni port of Aden.

So far, investigators have worked to secure what U.S. officials increasingly believe is a terrorist crime scene. Divers were examining the hull of the Cole.

More than 100 FBI evidence and explosives experts, including those in the group that arrived Saturday, were expected in Aden by the end of the weekend. Among the tasks they face: reviewing the ship's surveillance cameras. The Cole was fitted with video cameras, but it was not clear whether any images could aid in the probe.

Yemen almost immediately rejected U.S. claims that terrorism was behind Thursday's explosion, and the Foreign Ministry repeated Saturday that it "does not accept the presence of terrorists on its territories."

Nonetheless, U.S. officials believe it was suicide bombers who blew up a small boat next to the 8,600-ton destroyer, ripping a 40-by-40-foot hole at the water line. Seventeen sailors died, but only five bodies had been recovered. Those five arrived back in the United States on Saturday, landing at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware after a flight from Germany.

Two bodies were still in the ship, visible but stuck in the twisted steel wreckage. Navy officials said the bodies of the 10 missing sailors were presumed to also be amid the wreckage inside the ship.

Western diplomats in Yemen said the explosion seemed to be the work of a well-organized group with good connections in the port of Aden. If terrorism is proven, 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.

Thirty-nine Cole sailors were flown for treatment and evaluation to the U.S. military's Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. Some were taken to Germany after first stopping at a French military hospital in the east African nation of Djibouti.

The Navy had earlier said 33 sailors were wounded. Dudley said Saturday that six additional sailors required treatment for post-traumatic stress.

On Saturday, the injured sailors rested at a U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany. Some broke into tears when they called their families back home after arriving at the hospital, chaplains said. Many just wanted to sleep.

"They were definitely in shock," said Navy Lt. James Glaspie, one of 11 military chaplains counselling the survivors.

He said a young woman officer the sole officer among the injured was tormented by having to leave those under her command behind. "She was more concerned about her people than about herself," Glaspie said.

About 20 injured crew members now in Germany were scheduled to return to the Cole's home port of Norfolk, Va., this weekend, said Cmdr. Beci Brenton in Norfolk.

The bodies of five of those killed aboard the Cole were also flown first to Germany before going on to the United States. Services were planned later in the day at the Dover air base in Delaware and at the Norfolk Naval Base in Virginia.

The Navy released the names of the 17 dead on Friday. All but one were from the enlisted ranks and two were women the first female sailors killed in hostile action aboard a U.S. combat ship.

The Cole explosion came as anti-Western sentiment ran high in Yemen and elsewhere in the Arab world, with protesters condemning the United States, particularly during demonstrations against Israel's use of force in two weeks of deadly clashes in Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories.

More than 200 miles from Aden in the capital, San'a, an explosion on Friday rocked the British Embassy. Windows shattered but nobody was hurt. Britain's foreign secretary said a bomb may have been flung into embassy grounds. Authorities were investigating.

Saturday's statement from the Yemeni Foreign Ministry defended the country's record of combatting terrorism. The strongly worded statement also defended Yemenis and government officials who have protested the treatment of Palestinians in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.

The protests have "nothing to do with American-Yemeni relations" and express not only Yemeni sentiment but that of "the world's conscience," the ministry said.

There have been no credible claims of responsibility for the blast. One U.S. official said that reflects a trend among militant groups. To elude intelligence-gathering, many have not been claiming responsibility for their attacks.

Among the names mentioned in the wake of the bombing has been Osama bin Laden: The United States accuses bin Laden of organizing a network with followers across the Mideast, including Yemen, and says he masterminded the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa that killed 224 people.

Islamic extremists have been active in Yemen. However, Yemeni Prime Minister Abdul-Karim al-Iryani said in March that bin Laden, who at one time had "colleagues" in Yemen, now "has no place in Yemen, no military camps."

The Cole had been heading with a crew of about 290 to the Gulf to support the U.N. embargo against Iraq when it was bombed.

The Cole survivors remained aboard, and the Navy said the $1 billion guided missile destroyer would be repaired and stay in service. Two other Navy ships the frigate USS Hawes and the destroyer USS Donald Cook were sent to help the Cole and its crew.

"Obviously, the crew left on the USS Cole is tired and distraught," Defense Department spokesman Kenneth Bacon told reporters in Washington on Friday. "And so the crews of the new ships can help do some of the work that's required to keep the ship afloat and to deal with the damage to the hull."

Bacon said the Cole was stable, some power had been restored and Navy divers found the keel in good shape.

Saturday was the 33rd anniversary of independence from Britain for what was once South Yemen, now part of United Yemen. The anniversary is usually festive, particularly in Aden, once the South Yemeni capital. But marches and gatherings were banned Saturday in a city under tight security.

The ban on celebrations added to the frustrations of Aden fishermen, some of whom have been unable to take their boats out because of the security around the Cole.

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