Explosion leaves oil tanker in flames off Yemen coast

Terrorism feared in blast, but cause is unclear, French officials say


PARIS - A French oil tanker was on fire off the southeastern coast of Yemen after an explosion yesterday morning as it headed for an oil terminal in the Gulf of Aden.

By late last night, the cause of the blast aboard the tanker Limburg was unclear, but the incident immediately raised fears that terrorists had attacked one of the most vulnerable links in the oil-dependent global economy two years after an explosive-laden boat in nearby waters ripped a hole in the Navy destroyer USS Cole.

French diplomats and executives at the company that owns the tanker were quoted in early news agency reports as saying that they suspected a terrorist attack by a small boat reported approaching the tanker shortly before the explosion.

Yemeni officials, however, denied that there had been an attack and said the small boat had been sent to guide the tanker into port.

"We in Paris have no clue," said a senior French official here monitoring the investigation. "We fear that it is a terrorist act, but we probably need a couple of more days to see what happened."

In Washington, U.S. military officials said that they had not yet received solid indications that the tanker blast was the work of terrorists and, at least temporarily, were classifying the incident as a shipboard accident.

"Reports of a terrorist attack are, at this point, conjecture," one American military officer said.

All but one of the tanker's crew of eight French citizens and 17 Bulgarians were rescued from the ship, which sent an inky plume soaring into the sky and thousands of barrels of black oil spilling into the sea. One Bulgarian was reported missing. The French Embassy in Yemen said that 12 crew members were hospitalized in the port city of Mukalla.

Even if the blast turns out to be an accident, the snap suggestion that terrorists were to blame is a measure of the anxiety in the region.

Yemen is Osama bin Laden's ancestral home, and some reports have placed him in the mountains there, where he is reported to have once said he would like to live. The explosion came one week before the two-year anniversary of the attack on the Cole, which killed 17 American sailors and has been blamed on bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network.

Maritime companies had been alerted early last month to possible terror attacks on ships in the region. In advance of the Sept. 11 anniversary of the attacks in New York and Washington, Navy officials in Bahrain, home to the U.S. 5th Fleet, issued an advisory to shipping lines warning of possible strikes by al-Qaida against oil tankers.

Successful attacks on lumbering, oil-heavy tankers would be likely to roil world financial markets and could raise oil prices and batter confidence in a global economic system already shaken by last year's terrorist attacks in the United States and the prospect of war in Iraq.

The Middle East accounts for more than half of the world's oil exports, including more than 90 percent of Asian crude oil imports and one-third of American and European net crude oil imports. But it is unlikely the impact of such a terrorist campaign would last very long.

"This is really a scare story," said Gary Ross, chief executive of Pira Energy Group, a New York-based oil-industry consulting firm. "It would put everyone on heightened alert and raise insurance rates, but it wouldn't materially affect supply."

Since the Cole attack, Yemen has tried to assure the world that it is not an al-Qaida haven. It arrested more than 100 suspected members of the terrorist network and other Islamic groups in the months after Sept. 11 last year and has sent military patrols to hunt for al-Qaida members in the mountains.

Last month, Yemeni security forces killed one man and seized four other suspected al-Qaida members after a shootout in a northern suburb of San`a, the capital. Other suspected members escaped.

The 298,997-ton Limburg, leased by the Malaysian state oil company Petronas, was carrying 397,000 barrels of crude oil from the Kharg Island terminal in Iran and was preparing to take on 1.5 million more barrels of Yemeni crude at an offshore terminal near the Red Sea port of Mina al-Dabah. The French-registered ship is owned by Euronav, a subsidiary of the Belgian firm Compagnie Maritime Belge.

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