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US Forces on Alert in Persian Gulf

Updated:
WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. intelligence agencies have picked up ``credible threat information'' against American targets in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and U.S. military commanders placed all U.S. forces in those Persian Gulf countries on the highest state of alert, officials said.

The heightened alert coincided with confirmation Tuesday that since the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen on Oct. 12, no American warship has used the Suez Canal. The 101-mile-long waterway provides the fastest, and the normally followed, passage from the eastern United States to the gulf, where a U.S. aircraft carrier and its support ships maintain a permanent presence.

Some officials said U.S. military commanders believe it is prudent to avoid the Suez Canal for security reasons, but Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon said no official decision was made to stop using the canal, which links the Mediterranean and Red seas.

The crippled Cole, with most of its crew still aboard in the Gulf of Aden off Yemen, will take the long way home to the United States — around the Cape of Good Hope on Africa's southern tip — to avoid the Suez Canal, said defense officials who discussed the matter Tuesday on condition of anonymity.

Despite an appeal by President Clinton for ``a genuine, joint investigation,'' Yemini government investigators continued to question suspects without the participation of FBI agents sent to the Arabian peninsula country after the explosion. Yemeni officials said transcripts of interrogations were sent to U.S. investigators, who posed questions to Yemenis, then followed up.

ABC News reported Tuesday night that U.S. officials suspect Yemeni authorities erased critical parts of a videotape taken by a harbor surveillance camera the day the Cole was hit. FBI spokeswoman Tracey Silberling said she did not know about the tape and could not comment on the report.

Pentagon spokesman Bacon said the roughly 5,000 U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia and 5,000 in Kuwait were placed Monday on the highest alert level, ``threat condition delta.'' ``It is due to credible threat information involving unspecified targets,'' he said.

Last week the Pentagon said American forces in Bahrain and Qatar, tiny Gulf states with friendly relations with the United States, were placed on ``threat condition delta'' in response to terrorist threats of unknown credibility against specific targets — including an airfield in Bahrain used by American aircraft.

At Arlington National Cemetery, one of the last of the slain sailors brought home from the Cole was buried Tuesday. Hull Maintenance Technician 3rd Class Kenneth E. Clodfelter, 21, of Mechanicsville, Va., was among the 17 victims.

``Kenneth won't be forgotten; the other 16 won't be forgotten; the Cole won't be forgotten,'' Clodfelter's father, John, said after the funeral.

Bacon said it likely will be several more days before the Cole begins its journey home. The 505-foot destroyer was in the process of being secured atop the main deck of the Blue Marlin, a Norwegian-owned heavy-lift ship. To accomplish that, the Blue Marlin submerged its huge deck and positioned the Cole on top before starting to fasten it in place.

The Navy originally estimated the maneuver would take about 24 hours, but Bacon said extra time will be taken to test the stability of the destroyer on the Blue Marlin's deck. ``They just want to be very careful,'' Bacon said.

At a Pentagon briefing, Bacon displayed U.S. Navy photographs of the operation, but none showed the Cole raised out of the water to show the full dimensions of the bomb crater in its hull. Bacon said such photos might not be made public.

He said the only U.S. ship that had been scheduled to transit the Suez Canal since the Cole did so on Oct. 9 was the destroyer USS Donald Cook, which instead will accompany the Cole on its voyage home. He said it would be a matter of weeks before any other ships are scheduled to use the canal, but he denied that reflected a change in plans.

In the meantime, U.S. officials are consulting with the Egyptian government, which owns and operates the Suez Canal, on security arrangements, Bacon said.

Although the Persian Gulf region generally is considered more dangerous than many other parts of the world, security worries have escalated since the Cole bombing. American officials believe the attack was the work of terrorists, possibly with links to suspected terrorism mastermind Osama bin Laden.

Along with a Navy carrier battle group in the Gulf, the troops in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait form the bulk of the U.S. effort to contain Iraq's military. They include a U.S. Air Force contingent at Prince Sultan Air Base in central Saudi Arabia that helps patrol the ``no fly'' zone over southern Iraq. The American forces in Kuwait are mainly Army units at Camp Doha and include a Patriot air defense missile unit.

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On the Net: The USS Cole: http://www.chinfo.navy.mil/navpalib/news/news—stories/cole.html

The Blue Marlin: http://www.oht.no
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