U.S., French Investigators Arrive to Probe Tanker Explosion

A By Karl Vick

aL MUKALLA, Yemen – French and American criminal investigators arrived here together Wednesday night to probe the unexplained explosion that crippled a French supertanker this week.

The three French and two U.S. investigators were to examine the damaged hull of the Limburg early Thursday morning. An explosion ripped a hole at the waterline of the huge vessel on Sunday as it prepared to take on crude oil in a harbor near here. One crew member drowned and 24 others were rescued.

The cause of the blast remains a matter of intense speculation. The Limburg’s owners contend that the ship was attacked by suicide bombers in much the same way that the USS Cole was hit two years ago in the Yemeni port of Aden, but Wednesday a senior Yemeni official said a preliminary examination showed no human remains or clothing on the damaged ship. “No clothing, no remains of body parts, nothing to indicate humans were involved in it,” said Transportation Minister Saed Yafai.

But Yafai also acknowledged the eyewitness account of a crew member who said he saw a small boat speeding directly into the section of the tanker’s hull that seconds later exploded. It was a small boat packed with plastic explosives that tore open the hull of the Cole, killing 17 U.S. servicemen.

The Cole attack was blamed on al-Qaida, whose leadership twice the last week issued threats mentioning Western economic interests. In the most recent warning, Ayman Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s highest ranking aide, singled out France and Germany as “deputies of America” and warned, “We advise them to make a hasty retreat from Palestine, the Arabian Gulf, Afghanistan and the rest of the Muslim states, before they lose everything.”

Despite increased anti-terrorism efforts by Yemen’s government, this poor country wrapped around the southwest corner of the Arabian peninsula remains a favorite of al-Qaida, both as a hide-out and a recruiting site. Many remote regions remain beyond the authority of the central government, and a contingent of 800 U.S. troops, half of them Special Operations forces, was recently pre-positioned in nearby Djibouti amid rising U.S. concern over Yemen’s ability to battle al-Qaida.

The two U.S. investigators who arrived with their French colleagues Wednesday were described by Yafai only as “specialists in their fields.” A diplomatic source in San’a, the Yemeni capital, said their agency or agencies was “classified.” Yafai said the American specialists will serve as consultants to the investigation. Four French marine specialists arrived two days earlier but have not yet visited the Limburg.

The huge tanker was declared safe Wednesday after workers re-started the generators that render inert the highly combustible fumes in the oil that remained in the cargo holds. Authorities estimated 50,000 barrels of crude poured out of the jagged hole just above the waterline near the rear of the two-year-old ship’s starboard side.

The hole will be an immediate focus for investigators. News footage of the damage has ignited debates about whether it indicates an explosion from inside or outside the hull. Dave Minall, who was on the tugboat standing by to nudge the Limburg into its berth Sunday morning, said he told investigators Wednesday that “the plates of the hull were bent inward.”

“It was a six- to eight-meter gash, and there was splitting on the ends of the metal,” said Minall, the dive supervisor on the tug that circled the burning tanker for more than three hours as crew members escaped.

“And the position of the hole at the waterline is not consistent with a tank explosion,” he said. “It takes a lot of explaining to explain why the hole was produced there. You’d expect it to be near the top, where the gases would be.”