Blast Rocks U.S. Navy Ship, 6 Die
WASHINGTON (AP) _ The crippled warship USS Cole was listing but still afloat in a Yemeni port as investigators tried to find who planned its apparent bombing and the Navy broke the sad news to families of sailors dead, missing or injured.
``We will find out who is responsible and hold them accountable,″ President Clinton declared.
The tragedy was all the more shocking given that U.S. forces in the Middle East have been on a heightened state of alert in recent days because of spiraling Israeli-Palestinian turmoil and considerable anti-American sentiment in the region.
``If their intention was to deter us from our mission of promoting peace and security in the Middle East, they will fail, utterly,″ Clinton said in the Rose Garden just hours after Thursday’s explosion in the port of Aden, Yemen.
Defense Secretary William Cohen said he knew of no other specific threats against American forces in the region, but said he ordered an increased alert level for all U.S. forces around the world, including those in the United States.
Pentagon officials said that in a cunning slip through Navy security, suicide bombers drove a small boat with explosives up to the guided-missile destroyer as it made a refueling stop in Aden.
The Navy said the toll was six crew members killed, 35 injured and 11 missing. Officials were working late Thursday night to notify families and said they would release no names of casualties until Friday. They did say women were among the casualties.
The parents of sailor Craig Wibberley, 19, of Williamsport, Md., confirmed Thursday night that their son was killed in the bombing, according to The Herald-Mail of Hagerstown, Md.
After the attack, ambulances rushed to the port, and Americans working with Yemeni authorities cordoned off the area. The ship was listing four degrees. Yemeni police sources said without elaboration that a number of people had been detained for questioning; it was not clear whether any were suspects.
The State Department issued a worldwide alert, saying it was extremely concerned about the possibility of violence against U.S. citizens and interests.
The Cole attack was the first targeting the U.S. military in Yemen since the Pentagon pulled out all 100 American military personnel there in January 1993 after bombings outside the U.S. Embassy and at hotels where some Americans were staying. U.S. intelligence has blamed Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaida organization for some of those incidents.
With its 350 crew members, the Cole was en route to the Persian Gulf to help catch ships smuggling goods in violation of the U.N. embargo against Iraq.
``I have no reason to think this was anything but a senseless act of terrorism,″ said Adm. Vern Clark, the chief of naval operations.
The United States dispatched investigators, intelligence experts and diplomats to the site of the explosion, and the government of Yemen promised to cooperate.
Among questions they would try to answer: What type and strength of explosive was it that ripped the 20 foot by 40 foot hole in the hull of one of the world’s most advanced warships?
The explosion was the deadliest attack against the U.S. military since the bombing of an Air Force barracks in Saudi Arabia in 1996 that killed 19.
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh visited some of the injured who were hospitalized locally. But he disagreed with the main assumption of the U.S. investigation.
``I don’t think it’s a terrorist attack,″ he said.
The Cole, a $1 billion vessel based at Norfolk, Va., had just arrived in the harbor and was scheduled to leave in about four hours, officials said.
Clark said he couldn’t fault the Cole’s crew for failing to prevent the midday attack that apparently was carried out by two men in a small harbor craft that was helping tie up the ship’s mooring lines at the port’s fueling facility.
The Cole was following proper security rules when it was attacked, Clark said.
``We don’t automatically suspect people that are sent forward to help us,″ Clark said.
William Arkin, a military expert who specializes in Gulf affairs, said Yemen became a more frequent refueling stop for Navy ships following a December 1997 U.S. government policy decision to open up contacts and cooperation with the country.
On the Net:
Defense Department: http://www.defenselink.mil/
State Department Bureau of Near Eastern Affair’s country page on Yemen: http://www.state.gov/www/regions/nea/country/cp_yemen.html