WASHINGTON, Oct. 12 -- At least five sailors were killed, with 36 wounded and 12 still missing, in an apparent suicide bomb attack Thursday on a U.S. Navy ship preparing to refuel in a harbor in Yemen.
Officially, the U.S. government has not labeled the incident a terrorist attack, but Defense Secretary William Cohen, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Vernon Clark all say it was likely the work of terrorists and vowed to retaliate.
"From a personal point of view, and what I know about the ship and the events that have been described to me, I have no reason to think that this was anything but a senseless act of terrorism," Clark said at a Pentagon news conference with Cohen.
"Ifwe determine that terrorists attacked our ship and killed our sailors, then we will not rest until we have tracked down those who are responsible for this vicious and cowardly act," Cohen said.
No one has claimed responsibility for the attack and Cohen would not speculate as to who might be responsible.
"I think it's just premature to make any link between Osama bin Laden or anyone else at this point until we have more information," Cohen said. Bin Laden is suspected by the United States of involvement in several acts of terrorism against American targets.
Cohen struck a similarly cautious tone when he said that President Saddam Hussein has troops on the move in Iraq. He noted this is a normal training cycle for that country.
"But we're watching it very closely, because of the ambiguity of the situation, to make sure that Saddam is not using any training cycle in order to take advantage of any developments in the Middle East or elsewhere," the secretary said. "But we have not seen any specific move that would indicate that heintends to cause any major controversy."
The destroyer USS Cole had been in the Mediterranean Sea, passed through the Red Sea into the Gulf of Aden and was on its way to the Persian Gulf. The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer pulled up to a floating refueling dock at 12:15 p.m. local time in the harbor off Aden. A group of small boats from Yemen's port authority approached to help tie the ship to buoys.
One of these small harbor boats tied off a single line, then pulled up along the Cole and apparently detonated a "significant" explosive package, the Navy said. It blew an 800-square-foot hole at themidpoint of the port side of the ship, tearing apart the Cole's half-inch-thick steel hull.
The explosion destroyed an engine room and an auxiliary room and damaged the chief petty officers' dining room and the crew galley.
The small boat seemed to be part of the local crew that greets large ships and helps them navigate the harbor and tie up, and the commander of the Cole, Kirk Lippold, had no reason to suspect it was out to do harm, according to Clark. These kinds of refueling operations take place on almost a daily basis in foreign ports.
Clark said it would be almost impossible to defend a ship from this kind of attack. There was no warning or threat made, he said.
"The scenario that I've described to you is that it would be extraordinarily difficult to have ever observed in time to do anything about this kind of situation and to have stopped it," Clark said.
Whether the Navy will suspend use of the port is up to the commander of the U.S. Central Command, Gen. Thomas Franks.
That the Cole would be refueling in Aden was no secret. A Yemeni "pilot" would have been on the bridge of the U.S. destroyer helping it navigate into the port, the Navy said.
Moreover, Clark said the port authority at Yemen had 10 to 12 days' notice from the U.S. Embassy of Cole's refueling.
"We don't automatically suspect people that are sent forward to help us in an official way," Clark said. "This kind of support takes the tone of -- the arrangements made -- we send our request to the embassy and they deal with the local people there."
The Cole submitted the required "force protection" plan in advance of its port visit, indicating all reasonable measures for security were taken, Clark said.
Cohen said force protection is his highest priority as defense secretary. In 1997, he opposed the promotion of the general who was in charge of the U.S. air base in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, when a terror attack on the Khobar Towers housing complex took place, killing 19.
The casualty toll from Thursday's bombing could have been far higher; because the sailors were on "sea and anchor" detail, performing duties particular to pulling into a harbor, few sailors would have been in the areas damaged.
The damage is at the waterline, so the ship's crew was continuing to pump out water. The Cole was listing 4 degrees to port. Clark said the crew was "fighting for their ship."
A Navy official added later that the Cole is not yet out of danger, as a bulkhead could still give way.
Cohen confirmed that five sailors had died, and more casualties could be found as there are still missing sailors. CNN reported Thursday night that the number of deaths was six.
The U.S. military flew in a surgeon and a small medical team from Bahrain, and more medical teams were to follow. Britain and France also provided medical help.
Cohen said the attack would not stop the United States from pursuing its interests abroad.
"We will continue to protect our national interests around the world, in the Middle East and elsewhere," he said. "No one should doubt our resolve to remain a force for peace and for stability, and no one should assume that they can force us to retreat. No one should assume they can attack us with impunity."
He added, "We will take appropriate measures to hold those responsible."
Secretary of State Albright said she had been in touch with President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, and the Yemeni government "was being very cooperative in the investigative process."
"If it turns out, as it appears, to have been a terrorist act, we will hold those who committed it accountable and take appropriate steps," Albright said
Sen. Charles Robb, D-Va., said he would support a retaliatory strike against the perpetrators if one were launched when details become clearer, and suggested the magnitude of the attack indicates it was state-sponsored.
"It appears the attack could have no origin outside of terrorist activity," Robb told reporters on Capitol Hill. "Because of the level of explosive charges usedand the structure of the port, it appears that (this act) would have required state cooperation or state sponsorship. Someone in the port authority either failed miserably or was complicit."
Sen. John Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told CNN the attacking craft was not 'put together in a garage overnight. There had to be careful planning.'
The chairman of the House International Relations Committee, Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman, R-N.Y., called for an armed response to the attack.
"It is not enough to make tough speeches and bomb rocks or pharmaceutical factories, as the administration did in response to the attack on our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania," he said, referring to the 1998 that are among the acts in which bin Laden has been implicated. "Our enemies must understand that they will be found and they will be dealt with, if they attack U.S. troops."
Yemeni radio reported that Saleh had said the explosion was caused by an ammunition explosion on the Cole, and not an outside attack.
However, Navy spokeswoman Lt. Meghan Mariman told United Press International, "There is absolutely no indication it was an internal explosion."
Attorney General Janet Reno said an FBI team was headed for a port in Yemen to investigate. Officials from the State Department were also going.
The entire George Washington carrier battle group has been ordered out of port for safety reasons, and troops around the world are on heightened alert, the Pentagon announced.
Yemeni security and military forces, contacted by UPI in Aden, refused to give any information on the incident. The authorities in Yemen were expected to release a statement later.
Yemen is a known locus of terrorist organizations and has been the scene of a number of terror attacks and kidnappings of Westerners. Terrorist financier bin Laden, who is part Yemeni, is believed to have a training camp in the country, and the militant group Hamas has an office in Yemen. However, Yemen is not on the State Department list of countries suspected of sponsoring terrorism. The Yemeni government vehemently opposed the Gulf War.
The Navy has been using the "defense fuel support point" facility in Yemen for just 15 months; it has only been used 12 times by U.S. vessels. Use of the port was initiated by the military's Central Command chief in 1999 as part of a larger effort to improve relations with Yemen.
"We have been working to improve our relations with Yemen for some time. And I'm sure that that was at the heart of the motivation of the unified commander as they are improving our relations in that part of the world," Clark said.
The Navy considers port visits an integral part of its job. A well-armed ship makes a powerful public statement about U.S. commitment to a region; the Navy calls that mission "presence." It is also a reward to a country, boosting the local economy when sailors go ashore.
The Cole is 505 feet long and 148 feet high at its tallest point. It displaces 8,300 tons of water and can reach speeds of more than 30 knots. It boasts an arsenal containing standard missiles, Tomahawk cruise missiles and several large guns. The Colewas commissioned in June 1996. Its homeport is Norfolk, Va., where it is part of the George Washington carrier battle group. It carries more than 300 sailors.
This appears to be the first attack of its kind on a U.S. naval vessel. In 1987, the USS Stark was hit by Iraqi missiles, killing 37 and wounding five. In 1982, one sailor from the USS Pensacola was killed and three were injured in a terrorist attack on land in San Juan, Puerto Rico. A terrorist's truck bomb killed 241 Marines in their barracks in Lebanon in 1983.
In June 1996, a terrorist truck bomb attack killed 19 members of the Air Force in their living quarters in Dhahran. In November 1995, an attack in another Saudi city, Riyadh, killed five Americans working with the Saudi Arabian National Guard.
In 1898, the USS Maine sank in Havana harbor, killing 266; the incident is sometimes attributed to hostile action. It was one of the catalysts that led to the Spanish-American War.
Family members of Cole sailors can call (800) 368-3202 for more information.