Specialists Scour Crippled Destroyer

Sunday, October 15th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ADEN, Yemen (AP) — The crew of the crippled USS Cole gathered on its listing deck Sunday to pay tribute to 17 shipmates killed in an apparent suicide bombing that also ripped into the U.S. Navy's strategic plans in the Middle East.

Terrorism experts and explosives specialists scouring the ravaged vessel paused from their work as chaplains led the memorial service under blue-and-white tarpaulins to block the scorching sun.

An American official called it ``a very private affair'' limited to the crew and the extra clergymen and counselors brought in after Thursday's blast.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, described the crew as ``still in the state of shock'' from the ``utter devastation'' of the blast, which twisted metal and tore through compartments from below the waterline to the towering superstructure of the guided missile destroyer.

Hatches were blown open on the deck, the official said, and areas below near the blast site were ``absolutely destroyed.''

U.S. officials believe the ship was the target of a suicide attack from a small vessel packed with powerful explosives. If terrorism is proven, it would be the deadliest such attack on the U.S. military since the bombing of an Air Force barracks in Saudi Arabia in 1996 that killed 19.

Yemen strongly rejects the American claims. The Foreign Ministry repeated Saturday that it ``does not accept the presence of terrorists on its territories.''

The blast, however, has undoubtedly forced a reevaluation of U.S. military plans to make Yemen a strategic point in the region.

Aden's convenient deep-water port had been used as a refueling point for U.S. warships for about two years. Discussions also had been started on a possible permanent U.S. facility around Aden — near the southwestern tip of the Arabian Peninsula and near the important straits at the southern end of the Red Sea.

U.S. officials have suspended naval stops in Aden for the moment. A final decision will be made once the stricken Cole is towed away.

``It will be up to policy makers to determine the Navy's future presence here,'' said Lt. Terrence Dudley, a spokesman for the U.S. 5th Fleet based in Bahrain.

But more pressing questions resounded from the Middle East to Washington: who could have carried out the attack that left the world's most powerful military feeling highly vulnerable?

The painstaking examination of the crippled destroyer gained momentum as fresh members joined the team. About 100 FBI agents, divers and others are expected to take part in examining the devastation from the blast, which tore a 12-by-12-meter hole into the ship's midsection.

Among the tasks for the investigators: looking for residue that could indicate the type of explosives and reviewing information from ship's surveillance systems. The Cole was fitted with video cameras, but it was not clear whether any images could aid in the probe.

Navy commanders plan to repair the $1 billion ship and appear eager to leave Yemen. But the stricken vessel needs to prepared for a long open sea journey to a fully equipped ship yard — perhaps to Bahrain or in the United Arab Emirates.

The ship could be towed away as early as this week, said Navy officials, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Five bodies have been returned home for burial. Two other bodies were still in the ship, lodged in twisted steel. Ten sailors were missing and presumed dead. Failure to account for the missing could complicate or delay plans to tow away the vessel.

Thirty-three of those injured in the attack were ready to return home Sunday after treatment at a U.S. military hospital in Germany, leaving behind the remaining six injured who were in more serious condition.

Wearing donated tracksuits, most of the injured were well enough to walk unaided out of the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center into a misty morning chill. A few had canes or crutches, and one was brought by ambulance to the gray C-141 plane flying the sailors to the United States.

Western diplomats in Yemen said the explosion seemed to be the work of a well-organized group with good connections in the busy port.

Some terrorism analysts believe the absence of a credible claim of responsibility could reflect a trend among militant groups: to try to elude intelligence-gathering, many have remained quiet about their attacks.

Among the names mentioned in the wake of the bombing has been Osama bin Laden. The United States accuses bin Laden of organizing a network with followers across the Mideast, including Yemen, and says he masterminded the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in east Africa that killed 224 people.

Islamic extremists also have been active in Yemen. However, Yemeni Prime Minister Abdul-Karim al-Iryani said in March that bin Laden, who at one time had ``colleagues'' in Yemen, now ``has no place in Yemen, no military camps.''

The Cole had been heading with a crew of 293 to the Gulf to support the U.N. embargo against Iraq.

Two other Navy ships — the frigate USS Hawes and the destroyer USS Donald Cook — were sent to help the Cole and its crew.