By ROBERT BURNS
WASHINGTON — A powerful explosion rocked a U.S. Navy ship in port on the Arabian Peninsula today in an apparent suicide terrorist bombing that killed at least four Americans and injured more than 30, the Defense Department said. Twelve sailors were missing.
No one has claimed responsibility, U.S. officials said.
The destroyer USS Cole, with a crew of about 350 sailors, was in port at Aden, Yemen, for refueling when a small craft came alongside the ship and an explosion followed, according to Lt. Cmdr. Daren Pelkie, spokesman for the Navy’s 5th Fleet headquarters in Manama, Bahrain.
At a State Department news conference, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright declared: "We will hold those who committed it accountable and take appropriate steps."
She said this is no time for the United States to "retreat from our responsibilities" in the region.
"We are operating in a world that is filled with a variety of threats. But that doesn’t mean that we can crawl into an ostrichlike mode. We are eagles," Albright said.
Details of the incident were sketchy, but officials at the Pentagon said it appeared that the small boat was carrying some form of high explosive powerful enough to rip a large hole — 20 feet by 40 feet — in the side of the U.S. ship.
The boat was of the kind used in normal harbor operations in the port of Aden, according to a Pentagon official familiar with official reports from the scene. The official, who discussed the matter on condition of anonymity, said the boat crew had helped secure the Cole’s mooring lines at the fueling dock before it came alongside the ship.
Two men were seen standing up in the small boat before the explosion, the official said. He said there was no doubt that the explosion came from the small boat but it was not clear whether the boat rammed the ship.
Pelkie said at least 36 sailors were reported injured and 12 were missing, in addition to four confirmed dead. The injured were taken to a local hospital and U.S. Navy medical teams were dispatched to the scene from Bahrain.
Flooding on the ship was reported to be contained and there were no reports of fire.
The explosion "was so loud I thought it was from inside the hotel. The windows in 21 of our 33 rooms were shattered, and many of the television sets fell and broke," said Ahmed Mohammed Al-Naderi, manager of the port-side Rock Hotel. "Thank God, none of the guests or hotel personnel were injured."
Al-Naderi said he could see the Cole from his hotel.
"It has a big hole in it, but it doesn’t appear to be sinking. There are some people on board, and some small boats around it."
President Clinton was notified of the incident by his national security adviser, Sandy Berger, said White House spokesman Jake Siewert. The president called Defense Secretary William Cohen, urging him and Berger to find out what happened.
"He’s obviously troubled by it," Siewert said. "He wants to know what happened." Siewert said the incident "appears to be a terrorist bombing but we don’t know what happened."
Albright said she had talked with Ali Abdallah Saleh, the president of Yemen, and said he pledged support in the investigation.
She urged caution in attributing the incident to a terrorist attack. "We first have to be careful here. We have to make an assessment of the facts."
She called the incident a "great tragedy," and reiterated: "If it does appear it is a terrorist attack, we obviously will take appropriate steps."
At the Justice Department, Attorney General Janet Reno declined to comment on a possible terrorist link. She said FBI agents in the region have been sent to the scene and that the bureau was putting together investigators, explosives experts and an evidence response team to send as well. The nearest FBI legal attaches are stationed in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Asked if consideration is being given to putting on a worldwide terrorist alert at U.S. installations, she said, "That is an issue that is being addressed."
Albright said security for U.S. personnel overseas has been one of the "prime issues" for the Clinton administration.
Because the Cole had just arrived in Aden and was due to remain there only for four hours to take on fuel, U.S. officials said they believed the boat’s mission was a planned act of terrorism. The ship had passed through the Suez Canal on Monday and sailed down the Red Sea before arriving in Aden on the Gulf of Aden, Pelkie said.
U.S. Navy ships commonly stop in Aden for refueling. The region has been swept in recent weeks by demonstrations, some of them violent and often with an anti-U.S. tone, sparked by Israeli-Palestinian clashes in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Pro-Palestinian rallies have been held daily in Yemen.
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.
Thursday’s explosion was heard all over Aden and ambulances were seen rushing to the port. The injured were removed to local hospitals and the Navy was flying a medical team from Bahrain.
At about 12:15 p.m. local time, or 5:15 a.m. EDT, a U.S. Army major who works at the U.S. Embassy in Aden saw a small rubber boat of unknown nationality ram the destroyer’s port side, Pelkie said.
Flooding aboard the Cole was contained and no fires were reported, the spokesman said. The ship was listing four degrees to its port side after the explosion.
The Cole is a ship of the Burke destroyer class and carries sophisticated Aegis weaponry. Its home port is Norfolk, Va. It was en route to the Persian Gulf.
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