Blast clue search begins

Herald news services

ADEN, Yemen — With the crippled USS Cole listing slightly in the harbor, American investigators, Marines and soldiers swarmed into this deep-water port Friday, bringing sniffer dogs and sophisticated equipment to search for clues in the blast that killed 17 American sailors.

Wounded sailors and the bodies of some of the dead were flown to Germany en route home. The Navy said the ship would be repaired and stay in service.

The United States received a general warning of a possible attack on a U.S. warship last month, senior defense officials in Washington said Friday, but the warning lacked detail and did not specify the country in which to expect the attack.

Nor was it clear that the warning could have stopped what officials described Friday as a sophisticated suicide bombing. While the USS Cole’s crew had extensive training in repelling an overt attack by a small boat and even had extra sailors on watch on Thursday, the attack was so meticulously disguised and carried out that the officials said there was little the crew could have done to stop it.

Witnesses said the Cole was attacked by two men in a small harbor boat that exploded as it drew alongside the U.S. vessel during the start of a refueling stop at this port on the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula.

Diplomats said the boat used by the bombers was similar to boats used by port authorities to guide vessels into port or help ships with refueling.

As new details emerged on the attack, the developing U.S. investigation focused on the Yemeni contractor hired to refuel American warships at the port in Aden, and on an unsubstantiated claim of responsibility by the Islamic Army of Aden, officials here said.

That group has been linked to terrorist attacks including the bombing of a hotel in Aden and the kidnapping of tourists, the officials said.

Terrorism experts mulled various theories Friday, among them the possibility that the ship was attacked in retaliation for events in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, where two weeks of confrontations between Israelis and Palestinians have produced a wave of anger across the Arab world directed at Israel, and to some extent for the United States, which is widely seen by Arabs as backing Israeli policies.

Experts also weighed other possibilities, including a group sympathetic to Iraq and eager to strike against the Cole, which has been scheduled to join a U.S. flotilla enforcing trade sanctions on Iraq since its invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

Navy weapons experts, along with divers examining the Cole’s ravaged port side, determined that the explosion had torn into the ship with significant, apparently concentrated, force, underscoring the sophistication of the attack.

After an underwater inspection of the hull, officials said the damage had been more extensive than first reported. A defense official said the hole measured nearly 40 feet by 40 feet, much of it beneath the surface. One explosives expert said the blast had probably been caused by several hundred pounds of high explosives, which detonated against or within a few feet of the Cole.

"It is gruesome" inside the damaged area of the ship, a Pentagon official said. "They are working with torches and heavy equipment in places where everything is so smashed up that there’s not much reason to believe anyone could still be alive."

Decks and hatches have been crushed or bent out of shape, making movement through the area difficult in some places and impossible in others. The $1 billion destroyer was outfitted with some equipment that is helpful for this repair and rescue work, including hydraulic jacks, officials said.

But the ship is lacking other equipment, such as the "jaws of life" hydraulic tools used to remove trapped motorists from crushed motor vehicles. Because the blast detonated inward through the half-inch steel plate, authorities don’t think any of the dead were washed out to sea.

Although some sailors were in the mess area when the blast occurred, much of the crew was on deck and at work stations elsewhere. Navy officials said that the casualty count could have been much worse if it had taken place when more sailors were eating or sleeping, or if the explosion had struck compartments holding its inventory of Tomahawk cruise missiles or other munitions.

"This could have been a far different story," said Cmdr. Greg Smith, a Navy spokesman.

Five sailors with minor injuries have returned to the Cole from local hospitals, the Pentagon said.

The other approximately 250 crew members are "tired and distraught" but are determined to remain with their ship, said Kenneth Bacon, chief Pentagon spokesman.

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