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Terrorists blamed for French supertanker blast

October 7 2002

Smoke billows from the supertanker after the attack. Photo: AFP

A French supertanker was on fire off the Yemeni coast today after a mystery explosion which the operators said was caused by an attack.

The explosion which left the supertanker badly holed came a week before the second anniversary of a terrorist attack in Yemen on the destroyer USS Cole.

While a French diplomat in Sanaa said the blast was caused by a small boat packed with explosives that rammed the tanker, the French foreign ministry said there was no evidence so far of an attack.

Yemeni authorities, meanwhile, set up a crisis cell and voiced fears of a major oil slick spreading along the Arabian Sea coast.

"The oil tanker was rammed by a small boat stuffed with explosives" as it came by an offshore terminal about 700km east of Aden, Vice Consul Marcel Goncalves told AFP.

"It seems to be an attack in the same style as the USS Cole," he said of the hi-tech destroyer bombed by suspected al-Qaeda militants in Aden harbour on October 12, 2000.

Seventeen US sailors died and 38 were wounded in that attack.

The supertanker incident also came a day before the first anniversary of the US-led war against the Taliban and the al-Qaeda terror network in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden claims Yemen as his ancestral home.

A gaping hole was blown in the side of the 330-metre-long tanker, named the Limburg and managed by the company France Shipmanagement, the embassy said.

Twelve of the 25-man crew were hospitalised with injuries in the port city of Al-Mukallah, the embassy added.

Yemeni officials said all hands had been rescued and they were spending the night in a hotel.

But in France, Limburg owners Euronav, based outside Nantes on the Atlantic coast, said they believed it was a deliberate attack and added that one of the ship's 17 Bulgarian crew was still missing. A Yemeni pilot was most likely missing as well, they said.

The Bulgarian foreign ministry, meanwhile, said one sailor was still missing but his nationality was unknown.

Eight of the crew were French, and the office of French President Jacques Chirac said French experts would travel to Yemen soon to join the investigation into the explosion.

"For us it's deliberate. Because to cut through the first hull of this double-hulled oil tanker, which is in good condition and only two years old, you need a very, very strong force," Euronav director Jacques Moizan told AFP.

"It still has to be confirmed .... but a little boat which rams an oil tanker with a capacity of 500,000 tonnes, it's very surprising," added administrative director Alain Ferre.

Limburg's captain Hubert Ardillon, who spoke by telephone to his headquarters, had seen the small vessel approach, Ferre revealed.

Ardillon could not see if the vessel carried explosives but Euronav management concluded that it was loaded with explosives given the extent of the damage, Ferre added.

Euronav and France Shipmanagement are subsidiaries of holding group Euronav Luxembourg.

Yemeni officials baulked at the idea that a rerun of the Cole could have taken place. "The fire aboard the French tanker was caused by an explosion in one of the ship's reservoirs," an official government spokesman said.

It appeared as a partial denial of the vice consul's version of events, but did not go into any detail or refer to the small vessel which rammed the supertanker.

The spokesman added that an inquiry had been launched into the causes of the blast, and Chirac's office said the decision to send in French experts came during a telephone conversation he held with Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The authorities were in contact with the Limburg's owners and insurers to ensure "the rapid despatch of tugs to control the fire and limit pollution", the Yemeni spokesman said.

The Limburg was being pushed by winds towards al-Mukallah, the spokesman also said, adding that the authorities were trying to "avoid enormous damage to the town".

The Limburg, carrying 397,000 barrels of crude from Iran's Kharg terminal, was to add a further 1.5 million barrels of Yemeni oil from Mina al-Thabah, an official with the Hadramaut local government said.

Transport and Maritime Affairs Minister Saed Yafhi was put in charge of the cell and instructed "to take the necessary measures to bring the fire under control on board the tanker and to fight maritime pollution".

The spokesman did not specify if a slick had already leaked out of the vessel.

A ship had already left Aden "to fight pollution" and the Canadian oil firm Nexen, which works in the area, was also expected to assist, the spokesman said.

The Hadramaut governorate also released a statement saying simply that the explosion was caused "when the reservoirs filled with crude caught fire with the vessel three nautical miles from the offshore terminal of Al-Thabah".

In Paris, the French foreign ministry offered no comment today.

"An inquiry has been launched by the competent authorities in Yemen in order to determine the causes of the explosion," it said.

"At this stage and pending the results of this inquiry, any comment on the cause of the fire would be premature."

The ship was later located just off Ar-Riyan airport, outside Al-Mukalla, a correspondent at the scene reported. A huge pall of smoke blew over the Al-Mukalla area of Hadramaut.


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