By ROBERT BURNS
WASHINGTON — U.S. intelligence agencies have picked up "credible threat information" against American targets in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and all U.S. forces in those Persian Gulf countries were placed on the highest state of alert, officials said.
The heightened alert coincided with confirmation Tuesday that since the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen on Oct. 12, no American warship has used the Suez Canal. The 101-mile-long waterway provides the fastest, and the normally followed, passage from the eastern United States to the gulf, where a U.S. aircraft carrier and its support ships maintain a permanent presence.
Some officials said U.S. military commanders believe it is prudent to avoid the Suez Canal for security reasons, but Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon said no official decision was made to stop using the canal, which links the Mediterranean and Red seas.
Egyptian authorities have increased security at the Suez Canal since the Cole bombing, a senior official at the strategic waterway said Wednesday. He refused to divulge details, but other sources who live near the canal said a road running parallel to the waterway has been closed to civilian traffic.
A U.S. intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Wednesday that the targets of the terrorist threats related to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait were not specific, even as to whether the targets were military or civilian. They were credible enough, though, to take extra precautions, he said.
The crippled Cole, with a 40-foot-by-40-foot hole in the left side of its steel hull — has been lifted onto the deck of a specialized transport ship, the Blue Marlin, which will carry the destroyer back to the United States. The Navy said Wednesday the Blue Marlin, with the Cole aboard, had begun its voyage.
The Navy would not say which route the Blue Marlin will take, but defense officials speaking on condition of anonymity had said earlier this week that it probably would take the long way home by going around the Cape of Good Hope on Africa’s southern tip, to avoid the Suez Canal.
The more than 200 members of the Cole crew who had remained on the ship after the bombing will be flown back to their home base, Norfolk Naval Station in Virginia, probably on Friday, officials said.
Despite an appeal by President Clinton for "a genuine, joint investigation," Yemeni government investigators continued to question suspects without the participation of FBI agents sent to the Arabian peninsula country after the explosion. Yemeni officials said transcripts of interrogations were sent to U.S. investigators, who posed questions to Yemenis, then followed up.
ABC News reported Tuesday night that U.S. officials suspect Yemeni authorities erased critical parts of a videotape taken by a harbor surveillance camera the day the Cole was hit. FBI spokeswoman Tracey Silberling said she did not know about the tape and could not comment on the report.
Pentagon spokesman Bacon said the roughly 5,000 U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia and 5,000 in Kuwait were placed Monday on the highest alert level, "threat condition delta." "It is due to credible threat information involving unspecified targets," he said.
Last week the Pentagon said American forces in Bahrain and Qatar, tiny Gulf states with friendly relations with the United States, were placed on "threat condition delta" in response to terrorist threats of unknown credibility against specific targets — including an airfield in Bahrain used by American aircraft.
At Arlington National Cemetery, one of the last of the slain sailors brought home from the Cole was buried Tuesday. Hull Maintenance Technician 3rd Class Kenneth E. Clodfelter, 21, of Mechanicsville, Va., was among the 17 victims.
"Kenneth won’t be forgotten; the other 16 won’t be forgotten; the Cole won’t be forgotten," Clodfelter’s father, John, said after the funeral.
At a Pentagon briefing, Bacon displayed U.S. Navy photographs of the Cole being maneuvered onto the deck of the Blue Marlin, but none showed the Cole raised out of the water to show the full dimensions of the bomb crater in its hull. Bacon said such photos might not be made public.
He said the only U.S. ship that had been scheduled to transit the Suez Canal since the Cole did so on Oct. 9 was the destroyer USS Donald Cook, which instead will accompany the Cole on its voyage home. He said it would be a matter of weeks before any other ships are scheduled to use the canal, but he denied that reflected a change in plans.
In the meantime, U.S. officials are consulting with the Egyptian government, which owns and operates the Suez Canal, on security arrangements, Bacon said.
Although the Persian Gulf region generally is considered more dangerous than many other parts of the world, security worries have escalated since the Cole bombing. American officials believe the attack was the work of terrorists, possibly with links to suspected terrorism mastermind Osama bin Laden.
Along with a Navy carrier battle group in the Gulf, the troops in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait form the bulk of the U.S. effort to contain Iraq’s military. They include a U.S. Air Force contingent at Prince Sultan Air Base in central Saudi Arabia that helps patrol the "no fly" zone over southern Iraq. The American forces in Kuwait are mainly Army units at Camp Doha and include a Patriot air defense missile unit.
Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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