Port workers interrogated in blast

Associated Press and Los Angeles Times

ADEN, Yemen — Yemeni security forces Monday interrogated dozens of port workers and others — including the head of the company that services U.S. warships — as divers struggled to retrieve more bodies from the mangled USS Cole wreckage where 17 Americans died last week.

As investigators began examining whether security lapses played a role in the bombing of the Cole, government agencies disagreed Monday about who was responsible for evaluating the Yemeni contractors hired to provide harbor services for the ship.

They acknowledged, however, that no U.S. agency conducted conventional security checks on the prime contractor or the subcontractors it hired.

In Aden, the port city where apparent suicide bombers attacked the Cole Thursday, the focus was on identifying those behind the blast.

Ahmed al-Mansoob, general manager of the Al-Mansoob Commercial Group that provides food, supplies and garbage pickup to the U.S. warships, was released Monday after two days of questioning. The two crew members of the garbage barge assigned to the Cole were also brought in and later freed.

Al-Mansoob would not speak to reporters. But Abdullah Al-Khalaqi, marketing director for the Yemeni company, denied any connection to the attack last week.

"No one here is an extremist," he said. "Most of our employees are relatives. For others, we rely on word-of-mouth to see if someone is a good man."

Yemen now considers the blast "a premeditated criminal act," according to SABA, the official Yemeni news agency, a reversal of an earlier position and a crucial boost to the investigation. Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s backing is vital for FBI agents and other U.S. terrorism experts to work closely with Yemeni authorities.

The Navy dispatched three U.S. warships carrying 2,000 Marines toward Yemen Monday to assist in security and what officials called "hotel services," including food and berths, for the growing ranks of investigators. The three vessels are the Tarawa, an amphibious assault ship, the Duluth, an amphibious transport dock ship, and the Anchorage, an amphibious dock landing ship.

The chief of the U.S. Central Command, Gen. Tommy Franks, toured the listing destroyer Monday to offer support to the crew, exhausted after battling all weekend to keep the badly damaged ship from sinking. By Monday, most flooding was contained and conditions on board had improved.

In the United States, 13 injured sailors were released from a Virginia hospital by Monday afternoon, and more were expected to follow.

Only five bodies of the 17 who died in the blast have been recovered. Extreme difficulties facing underwater teams include trying to thread through a maze of jagged wreckage and collapsed compartments in the murky, oil-filled water.

Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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