France investigates oil tanker blast

Diplomats suspect attack, but Yemen disagrees

October 08, 2002|By Sebastian Rotella | Sebastian Rotella,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

PARIS - French counterterrorism prosecutors opened a preliminary investigation yesterday into the explosion on a French oil tanker off the coast of Yemen, but other officials said the blast may have been an accident.

The blast Sunday morning near the port of Mina Dabah caused a huge fire in the tanker Limburg and left a crewman missing.

French diplomats in Yemen said initially that they suspected a deliberate act. The tanker's captain said in news media accounts that he saw a small boat approaching just before the explosion. And the owners of the ship, a Belgian company, said the damage was at the water line, suggesting a blast caused by an external source, such as a boat carrying explosives.

The counterterrorism section of the Paris public prosecutor's office opened its inquiry yesterday as investigators from the French Directorate of Territorial Security, the navy, the Transport Ministry and other agencies hurried to Yemen.

"It resembles an attack," said a judicial official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It appears that the report of a small boat in the vicinity of the tanker has been confirmed. The captain said he saw the boat disappear in the explosion. But it is still impossible to confirm whether it was an accident or intentional."

Yemeni officials discounted the terrorism suspicions from the start. Yemen's minister of transport and marine affairs, Capt. Saeed Yafai, reiterated the denials yesterday. He said the investigation has indicated that the explosion came from within the tanker, which carried 400,000 barrels of Saudi crude oil.

If the blast originated inside, that would greatly reduce the likelihood that it was an attack.

French diplomats were cautious about guessing the cause of the explosion.

"No possibility is being excluded," Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said in a radio interview. A Foreign Ministry spokesman said a vice consul in Yemen who had spoken of an apparent attack was expressing an opinion, not the official position.

Law-enforcement experts have warned for months about the possibility of a terrorist strike intended to disrupt oil shipments in the Middle East, a region racked by the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks and tension over a U.S. confrontation with Iraq.

The context around the tanker explosion contributed to suspicions: It occurred a week before the second anniversary of the bombing of the U.S. Navy destroyer Cole in Yemen. Seventeen U.S. sailors died in that attack, which was carried out by al-Qaida terrorists using a small boat packed with explosives.

The U.S.-led hunt for al-Qaida suspects has focused recently on Yemen, the ancestral homeland of Osama bin Laden. U.S. authorities in Yemen were following the tanker case closely.

John Balian, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in San`a, the capital, said there were indications that an electrical malfunction aboard the ship could have been the cause. "It's all speculation at this point," Balian said.

Sebastian Rotella is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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