17 presumed dead in attack on U.S. ship

Friday, October 13th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

U.S. assails 'despicable and cowardly act'

WASHINGTON – The 10 U.S. sailors missing in the bombing of the U.S. Navy warship in Yemen are presumed dead, raising the death toll in the apparent terrorist attack to 17, the Navy said Friday.

Lt. Cmdr. Cate Mueller, a Navy spokeswoman, said families of the 10 missing sailors were being notified that they are presumed to have been killed in the explosion. Efforts to recover their remains are continuing, she said.

Lt. Cmdr. Mueller said the Navy would release the names of the casualties when all families had been notified.

A death toll of 17 would be the highest for a terrorist attack on the American military since the bombing of the Khobar Towers housing complex in Saudi Arabia in 1996, which killed 17 Air Force troops.

President Clinton ordered U.S. warships to leave ports in the Middle East and ground troops to tighten security Thursday after the blast blew a gaping hole in the destroyer USS Cole as it stopped to refuel in Yemen.

The president said that "if, as it now appears, this was an act of terrorism, it was a despicable and cowardly act. We will find out who was responsible and hold them accountable."

The FBI opened a criminal investigation into the deaths of the U.S. sailors, rushing Mideast-based personnel to Yemen and dispatching a team of U.S.-based investigators as well.

The explosion, which ripped a 20- by 40-foot gash at the waterline in the port side of the Cole's hull, also injured 35 U.S. sailors, U.S. officials said.

The attack on the Aegis guided-missile destroyer occurred as violence between Israelis and Palestinians hit new heights, stirring anti-U.S. resentment among Arabs around the region.

"The guided-missile destroyer Cole was apparently attacked by terrorists in a small boat," said Adm. Vern Clark, chief of naval operations. "I have no reason to think that this was anything but a senseless act of terrorism.

"At this point, nobody has claimed responsibility for this act."

Mr. Clinton vowed, "If their intention was to deter us from our mission of promoting peace and security in the Middle East, they will fail utterly."

The State Department issued a worldwide alert that urged "a high level of vigilance" against the possibility of violence aimed at U.S. citizens and interests. Americans were advised to defer all travel to Israel, the West Bank, Gaza and Yemen.

Adm. Clark said the victims included female crew members.

Defense Secretary William Cohen said the explosion occurred at 12:15 p.m. (4:15 a.m. in Dallas) as the Cole was being moored to buoys in the Yemeni port of Aden to take on fuel from a floating device called a "fueling dolphin."

The Cole, whose home port is Norfolk, Va., and its crew of about 300 had stopped at Aden on its way to the Persian Gulf for deployment as part of the aircraft carrier USS George Washington's battle group.

FBI agents arrive

The first FBI agents to arrive in Yemen came from the nearest bureau outpost, the FBI legal attache's office in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, said FBI spokesman Steven Berry.

"We're conducting the investigation jointly with the Naval Investigative Service," Mr. Berry said.

A contingent of U.S.-based FBI agents – including investigators, explosives experts and a forensics team – was expected to depart from Andrews Air Force Base as early as Thursday night, bureau officials said.

Adm. Clark said medical teams were being flown to Aden to care for the wounded, some of whom would be transported to hospitals elsewhere in the region or in Europe, as "determined by surgeons on the scene."

He said two other U.S. warships, a British ship and a French ship also were on their way to Aden to assist the Cole's crew.

Adm. Clark said eyewitness reports indicated that two men in a boat that was helping tie the 505-foot long, 8,600-ton Cole's mooring lines to tethering buoys maneuvered their craft next to the ship just before the explosion.

Mr. Cohen said it was too early to definitively declare the incident a terrorist attack. But he and Adm. Clark said there was no reason to think it was anything else.

Noting that the half-inch steel hull of the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer can withstand 51,000 pounds of pressure per square inch at the waterline, Adm. Clark said, "Obviously this was a significant explosion."

The unidentified explosives apparently were concealed in the small boat, the officials said.

Adm. Clark said he was unable to confirm reports that the two men in the boat stood at attention just before the blast and were killed in the explosion.

"I am told that two individuals were observed on the boat," Adm. Clark said.

Mr. Cohen said he wanted to "take this opportunity to express my deepest sorrow for the sailors who died defending our national interests and to extend my condolences to their families."

Mr. Cohen and Adm. Clark said the crew of the Cole quickly brought the flooding under control and stabilized the ship.

Adm. Clark said the blast and flooding damaged one engine room and an adjacent space that holds pumps and various valves to control fluids that circulate in the ship. He said some berthing and dining spaces in the vessel also had been damaged to an extent as yet unclear.

Yemen has been used as a haven by terrorists including Osama bin Laden, but Adm. Clark defended the decision to have the Cole refuel there.

U.S. relations with the recently unified nation have improved in recent years, and Yemen is not on the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said she had spoken to Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and said he was "being very cooperative in the investigative process. The president of Yemen told me he had been to the hospital to visit the casualties, and obviously he offered his condolences."

No warnings or threats

Adm. Clark said responsibility for ordering U.S. ships to use Yemen as a way-station rested with the commander in chief of the U.S. Central Command, Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks. But the admiral said he knew of "nothing, no kind of a warning or a threat indicator," that would have suggested it was unsafe for the Cole to refuel there.

"We have been working to improve our relations with Yemen for some time," Adm. Clark said. He also noted that three other U.S. warships have refueled at Aden in the last six months without incident.

The admiral added that there was no reason for the ship's captain, Cmdr. Kirk S. Lippold, to have been suspicious of the men on the boats hired to help the destroyer tie up for refueling.

"Any commander that was working in a situation in a port like this has to assess the threat and the movement of ships and boats and so forth in the harbor," Adm. Clark said. "And a boat that was involved in the mooring ... he would not expect to be a threat."

Crew's work praised

The Cole's crew members were on alert status "Bravo" during the refueling, he added, meaning there were armed crew members on the deck to defend the ship.

Sen. John Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a TV interview that the explosives-laden boat clearly was not "put together in a garage overnight. There had to be careful planning."

The Cole was to have remained in Aden only a few hours, but Adm. Clark said the arrangements for the refueling had been made 10 to 12 days in advance by the U.S. Embassy, as is customary.

The admiral and Mr. Cohen praised the crew of the Cole for keeping the ship afloat. They said the flooding was still a threat but there was no reason to fear the $900 million ship would sink.

"They have performed superbly," Adm. Clark said. "They have done what they need to do to control and limit the flooding and the damage that has occurred to the ship."

Staff writer Michelle Mittelstadt in Washington and Arlington Morning News staff writer Kathy A. Goolsby contributed to this report.


For facts and figures on Yemen, click here.

For more information on the Middle East, check out the University of Texas at Austin's website, click here.

Following is a transcript of the statement made Thursday by the President on the Middle East situation and the incident on the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen.

The Rose Garden - 1:47 P.M. EDT

THE PRESIDENT: I have just been meeting with my national security team on today's tragic events in the Middle East, and I would like to make a brief statement.

First, as you know, an explosion claimed the lives of at least four sailors on one of our naval vessels, the USS Cole, this morning. Many were injured; a number are still missing. They were simply doing their duty. The ship was refueling in a port in Yemen while en route to the Persian Gulf. We're rushing medical assistance to the scene, and our prayers are with the families who have lost their loved ones or are still awaiting news.

If, as it now appears, this was an act of terrorism, it was a despicable and cowardly act. We will find out who was responsible and hold them accountable. If their intention was to deter us from our mission of promoting peace and security in the Middle East, they will fail, utterly.

I have directed the Department of Defense, the FBI and the State Department to send officials to Yemen to begin the investigation. Secretary Albright has spoken with President Salih of Yemen, and we expect to work closely with his government to that effect.

Our military forces and our embassies in the region have been on heightened state of alert for some time now. I have ordered our ships in the region to pull out of port, and our land forces to increase their security.

Tensions are extremely high today throughout the entire region, as all of you know. I strongly condemn the murder of Israeli soldiers in Ramallah today. While I understand the anguish Palestinians feel over the losses they have suffered, there can be no possible justification for mob violence. I call on both sides to undertake a cease-fire immediately, and immediately to condemn all acts of violence.

Finally, let me say this. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the greatest tragedies and most difficult problems of our time. But it can be solved. The progress of the last few years -- progress that brought Israel to the hope of a final peace with true security, and Palestinians to the hope of a sovereign state recognized by the entire world -- was not made through violence. It happened because both sides sat down together, negotiated, and slowly built up the trust that violence destroys.

Now is the time to stop the bloodshed, to restore calm, to return to dialogue, and ultimately to the negotiating table. The alternative to the peace process is now no longer merely hypothetical. It is unfolding today before our very eyes.

Now, I need to go back to work on this, and so I won't take questions right now. But the Department of Defense will offer a briefing today and will be able to answer the questions that are relevant to today's events.

Thank you.