First a salute, then a bomb

Fake tender that attacked USS Cole may be linked to bin Laden

Herald news services

Two men posing as crew of a mooring-line tender stood to attention and saluted before detonating a bomb that ripped a jagged hole through a Navy destroyer in Aden, Yemen, Thursday, leaving six sailors dead, 11 missing and more than 35 men and women wounded.

President Clinton and other world leaders condemned the attack and appealed for calm in the region as the crew of the destroyer USS Cole battled to keep it afloat. The explosion sent tons of water gushing into the Arleigh Burke-class missile ship through a 20-foot-wide, 40-foot-high hole in the middle of the ship.

"If, as it now appears, this was an act of terrorism, it was a despicable and cowardly act," Clinton said in a nationally televised statement. "We will find out who was responsible and hold them accountable."

Thursday afternoon, an individual in London who claimed to be speaking for the Islamic Army of Aden said the fundamentalist group had carried out the attack against the Cole, according to one senior U.S. official.

A relatively new organization in Yemen about which little is known, the Islamic Army of Aden, also known as the Aden-Abyan Army, is thought to be linked to Saudi millionaire Osama bin Laden, the Islamic militant who is believed to have orchestrated the bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, among other attacks.

Earlier, some intelligence officials speculated that bin Laden may have financed the perpetrators. They suspect bin Laden provided support for attacks on other U.S. forces in the region in recent years.

Those killed and maimed were in the engine room, auxiliary pump room, and dining and sleeping areas, where the bomb blast had its most direct impact after cutting through the half-inch steel hull. The ship had a slight, 4-degree list after the blast, but damage control parties had it righted hours later. Watertight doors between bulkheads and pumps kept the sea water from causing more damage.

Cmdr. Kirk Lippold and his Norfolk, Va.-based crew had the Cole under control late Thursday, Navy officials said. Meanwhile, other ships that enforce a trade embargo on Iraq were ordered to leave Persian Gulf ports and increase readiness against further attacks.

The Cole had just arrived in the harbor to refuel and was scheduled to leave in about four hours, officials said, suggesting the attackers may have known the ship’s schedule and the procedures for such a stop.

The Cole, the 12th U.S. Navy ship to refuel in Aden in the past 15 months, had pulled up close to a floating fueling dock in the middle of Aden harbor. The small boat carrying the bomb had already tied what was to be the first of several lines to position the Cole for the offshore loading.

The Navy got approval for the Cole to enter the harbor and support ships for the refueling through the U.S. Embassy in Aden, Navy officials said. There was no inkling the small tender was a threat as it approached the Cole. "You just don’t shoot the crew of an unarmed boat in this situation," a Clark aide said.

An FBI team in Saudi Arabia was dispatched to Aden on orders of Attorney General Janet Reno. The agents will attempt to determine the kind of explosive used and Aden residents involved that might point to a specific terrorist group. The FBI fingered bin Laden, who still lives in Afghanistan, as the man behind the 1996 terrorist bombing of U.S. Air Force barracks in Khobar Towers near Dahran. In that blast, 19 airmen were killed and more than 500 injured.

But bin Laden has eluded anti-terrorist efforts including a salvo of Navy Tomahawk missiles on his mountain hideout in Afghanistan.

"There had to be a lot of planning," said Sen. John Warner, R-Va., of the attack. The terrorist vessel was not "put together in a garage overnight." Warner is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Names of casualties were being withheld until families were notified.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright conferred by telephone with Yemen President Ali Abdallah Saleh, who raced to the Aden hospital to be at the bedside of the wounded U.S. sailors. A French military medical team arrived by air to help treat the Cole crew. Navy and Air Force physicians were also flying to Aden. Some of the crew were likely to be evacuated to U.S. military hospitals, Pentagon officials said.

Eyewitness accounts from Aden told of a blast that shattered windows in the city. "The two guys pulled up next to the Cole and then stood to attention," said a senior Pentagon official.

"Our people took it as, ‘Allah, here I come,’ " another Pentagon official said.

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