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French to Examine Tanker in Yemen

October 9, 2002

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AL MUKALLA, Yemen (AP) _ French transport experts planned their first examination Wednesday of the oil tanker crippled by an explosion and fire off Yemen and will try to determine if a terrorist attack caused the blast, a Yemeni official said.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Associated Press that Transport Ministry experts would report findings from the French-owned Limburg to both France and Yemen.

Although Yemen believes Sunday’s blast was an accident, the Limburg captain, Hubert Ardillon, contends it was a deliberate act. French authorities had said it was too early to rule out any cause.

Attention has focused on reports a fishing boat approached the tanker before the explosion. Ardillon told The Associated Press on Tuesday one of his crew members saw the boat.

Yemeni investigators said they had seen no debris or other signs of a small boat that might have caused or been affected by the explosion. Reporters taken near the tanker Monday also saw no such debris.

The chief Yemeni investigator, Minister of Sea Transport Said Yafaai, called the captain’s statements ``irresponsible″ and said nothing learned so far suggests terrorism.

``Our visit to the ship today did not change our previous position,″ Yafaai told reporters on Tuesday. ``We should wait for the results of the investigation. If it is a terrorist act, we will not hide it.″

U.S. investigators were expected to arrive in Al Mukalla later Wednesday. Yafaai said they would ``work as advisers to us in the investigation.″

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh met Tuesday with a State Department counterterrorism official, a Yemeni government official said.

On Tuesday, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, in remarks carried by his government’s news agency, said the explosion did not appear to have been sabotage or terrorism. The tanker was to carry a load of crude oil to Malaysia for refining.

A senior State Department official said Monday that the damage suggested ``things were blown out″ from the tanker instead of from the outside. The United States, however, has not ruled out terrorism.

The fire that raged for hours aboard the tanker was put out Monday. Pushed by strong winds during the night, the Limburg was swaying in the sea 15 miles from the coastline, surrounded by oil slicks.

One of the ship’s sides was badly burned and had a hole about three feet in diameter near the water level.

The body of a missing crew member, an unidentified Bulgarian, was found on shore Tuesday, Abdel Qader Helal, governor of Hadramout province, told The Associated Press. The 24 other crew members, eight of them French and the others Bulgarian, had been safely evacuated Sunday.

In 2000, a small boat laden with explosives rammed the USS Cole as it refueled at another Yemeni port, Aden, setting off a blast that killed 17 U.S. sailors. That attack was blamed on Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida terrorist network.

Yemen has been eager to emphasize its commitment to the U.S.-led war on terror and shake off its reputation as a hotbed of extremism _ it is believed to have been a longtime base for suspected al-Qaida members and is the bin Laden family’s ancestral home.

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