Paris doesn't rule out terrorism in blast

Oct. 7, 2002 at 12:38 PM

SANAA, Yemen, Oct. 7 (UPI) -- French investigators arrived in Yemen Monday to look into the cause of an oil tanker explosion in the Gulf of Aden, even as France's DST anti-terrorist branch launched its own inquiry from Paris.

The investigations come as French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said terrorism could not be ruled out in Sunday's tanker blast, which wounded 24 crew members of the Limburg.

"An attack is not excluded," he said during a Monday interview on France's RTL radio station. "Nothing is excluded. The investigators will look into exactly what happened."

The fire broke out as the Limburg headed from Iran toward the port of Al Dabbah, 350 miles east of Aden, with 397,749 barrels of oil.

Yemeni officials fault an internal accident aboard the French tanker for the explosion but some French diplomats in Yemen -- along with the head of the France-based Euronav company that owns the Limburg -- told French media they suspected a terrorist attack.

Firefighters put out the oil tanker blaze Monday.

The incident stirs memories of the attack on the U.S.S. Cole on Oct. 12, 2000, that killed 17 sailors. Osama bin Laden's al Qaida network was blamed for the attack.

Sunday's tanker explosion coincided with the first anniversary of the U.S. airstrikes on al Qaida and Taliban bases in Afghanistan.

France's Le Monde newspaper reported Monday the United States warned maritime authorities in the Gulf last month that attacks on oil tankers navigating the region were likely.

"What we fear is terrorist attacks against all oil stations," Nicolas Sarkis, head of the Arabic Study Center for Petroleum Studies, told Europe-1 radio. "Some of them remain vulnerable. They're very difficult to survey and control."

"The smallest accident confirms these fears, and may be a sort of early taste of what could happen in a state of war -- where this kind of action could multiply," he added.

Like other countries, France has stepped up security domestically, and at its embassies and companies overseas, since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington. Nonetheless in May, a suicide attack on a bus in Karachi, Pakistan, killed nearly a dozen French naval workers.

Following the U.S.-led war on terrorism, Yemen has been keen to shed its image as a safe haven for members of al Qaida , which is held responsible for the September 2001 attacks. More than 100 members of the group have been arrested as part of a nationwide crackdown on terrorism.

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(Elizabeth Bryant contributed to this story from Paris.)

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