By BARRY SCHWEID
WASHINGTON – U.S. Navy ships have stopped using the Suez Canal, the usual route from the eastern United States to the Persian Gulf, out of concern for terrorist threats, senior U.S. defense officials said today.
No U.S. Navy ship has used the 101-mile canal since the USS Cole made its way from the Mediterranean Sea into the Red Sea shortly before it was attacked by terrorists in the Yemeni port of Aden on Oct. 12.
It was unclear how long Navy ships would avoid the Suez. One defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said some planned trips through the canal have been scrapped since the Cole bombing, and future scheduled trips will be considered on a case-by-case basis.
Col. Brian Hoey, spokesman for the U.S. Central Command, said Monday night that the American government is “working very closely with the Egyptian government to ensure ongoing security arrangements are appropriate” at the canal.
Meantime, President Clinton and the State Department’s top anti-terrorism official are urging Yemen to give U.S. investigators more access to witnesses, suspects and evidence in the Cole bombing investigation.
The intricate process of preparing the Cole for its return voyage to the United States, meanwhile, continued as the heavy-lift ship Blue Marlin worked to secure the Cole onto its main deck. Pentagon officials said the process likely would take a few more days. Once it is ready to go, the Blue Marlin will travel around the southern tip of Africa in order to avoid the Suez Canal, defense officials said.
Clinton said Monday that Yemen had cooperated fully in the preliminary, first phase of the investigation of the Oct. 12 attack that killed 17 American sailors and injured 39.
But, the president said, “there have been difficulties now.” And, Clinton said, “I hope that we can work it out.”
Today, Michael A. Sheehan, coordinator of the State Department counterterrorism office, said that while Yemen had the authority and responsibility to conduct the investigation “we would like to be privy” to more of it.
“Normally,” Sheehan said at a breakfast meeting with reporters, “the United States doesn’t have the right to question witnesses.”
But in some situations U.S. investigators have had direct access to suspects and “we are urging them to cooperate and hope that they will,” he said.
Clinton said Monday there were some “promising leads,” and that prompt action was essential because “the trail can get cold.”
Sheehan declined to provide any information on what investigators may have found out. “It’s not clear what happened,” he said. But, he added: “My guess is that it (the attack) was not state-sponsored.”
“I don’t know who did it,” the State Department official said. “Anyone in the U.S. government who says he knows doesn’t.”
Asked if Osama bin Laden, a Saudi expatriate accused of heading a terrorism network, was behind the attack, Sheehan said “it’s not useful to speculate.”
In Afghanistan, where bin Laden has taken refuge, Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil said Monday: “We don’t expect that America would attack us.
“But,” he said, “we are not afraid of any attack. Being Muslims, we are ready to greet death at any time.”
Sheehan said the United States held Taliban accountable for providing sanctuary for terrorist organizations. If the bin Laden group or any other there is found responsible for bombing the Cole “we are going to make life miserable for them,” Sheehan said.
The United States has demanded that Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban militia hand bin Laden over for trial on terrorism charges in the August 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Those attacks killed 224 people.
Shortly after the embassy attacks, the United States fired dozens of Tomahawk cruise missiles at bin Laden’s suspected stronghold in eastern Afghanistan.
Bin Laden has denied involvement in the embassy bombings, and the Taliban say the United States has not substantiated the charges against him.
Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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