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Team Probing USS Cole Blast Grows

October 14, 2000 GMT

ADEN, Yemen (AP) _ Yemeni patrol boats cruised near the USS Cole early Saturday, keeping a buffer zone around the stricken ship as U.S. investigators stepped up efforts to determine whether terrorism was behind an explosion that killed 17 sailors.

Lt. Terrence Dudley, a U.S. Navy spokesman in Aden, said 40 FBI agents and Department of Defense specialists from Washington’s Foreign Emergency Support Team were due in Aden Saturday, joining the experts who are here now. Their mission was to ``advise, assist and assess″ a probe that began almost immediately after the explosion Thursday, Dudley said.

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So far, investigators have worked to secure what U.S. officials increasingly believe is a terrorist crime scene. Divers were examining below the waterline.

More than 100 FBI evidence and explosives experts, including those in the group arriving Saturday, were expected in Aden by the end of the weekend.

U.S. officials believe suicide bombers blew up a small boat next to the 8,600-ton destroyer, ripping a 40-by-40-feet hole at the water line. If terrorism is proven, the toll would make it the worst such attack on the U.S. military since the bombing of an Air Force barracks in Saudi Arabia in 1996 that killed 19 military personnel.

Western diplomats in Yemen said the explosion seemed to be the work of a well-organized group with good connections in the port of Aden who might have provided the bombers with logistical support.

Wounded U.S. sailors and the bodies of some of the dead were flown to Germany en route home Friday; the Navy said the ship would be repaired and stay in service.

The Navy released the names of the 17 sailors on Friday. All but one were from the enlisted ranks and two were women. Navy chaplains had arrived to console survivors, Navy spokesman Dudley said.

``I’m just numb. It hasn’t sunk in yet,″ said Patty Wibberley, mother of Seaman Craig Wibberley, 19, killed in the explosion. His duties had included raising and lowering the destroyer’s small anchor.

The Cole explosion came as anti-Western sentiment ran high in the Arab world, with protesters condemning the United States _ particularly during demonstrations against Israel’s use of force in two weeks of deadly clashes in Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories.

More than 200 miles from Aden in the capital, San`a, an explosion on Friday rocked the British Embassy. Windows shattered but nobody was hurt. Britain’s foreign secretary said a bomb may have been flung into embassy grounds. Authorities were investigating.

``The world should not underestimate the anger of Palestinians at this moment,″ said Mohammed al-Sharq, a member of the small Palestinian community in Aden who, like many here, said he believed ``outside forces″ were responsible for the attack on the Cole.

Esam al Najjar, a Palestinian-Yemeni working for a cement company, said such attacks can never be condoned, ``but you must put yourself in the place of the people who carried it out. You have to try to understand that for some people, this is the only way left to respond.″

Yemen was one of the countries where members of the Palestine Liberation Organization settled after being forced from Lebanon. The Palestinian community has dwindled from several thousand in the 1980s to 200 to 300 today in Aden, a desert city known for its infestation of crows _ a bad omen to Arabs _ and blocky, Soviet-era architecture.

The Cole investigation was taking place under tight security in this city of 800,000 squeezed between the sea and a range of jagged hills. Yemeni soldiers were posted outside the hotel where most U.S. investigators and their Marine guards were staying. Inside, the Marines carried automatic rifles and closely monitored anyone coming in.

The ship, a white cloth billowing over the gaping hole ripped into the hull by the blast, sat isolated in an inner area of the harbor on a hot, sunny Saturday morning.

Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon said Friday the ship is stable, some power has been restored and Navy divers found the keel in good shape.

The Cole is a $1 billion guided missile destroyer with its home port at Norfolk, Va. It was heading with a crew of about 293 to the Gulf to support the U.N. embargo against Iraq.

There have been no claims of responsibility for the blast that have gained widespread credibility. One U.S. official said this reflected a trend among militant groups not to claim responsibility for attacks in order to elude intelligence gathering.

However, Omar Bakri Mohammed, a leader of Al-Muhajiroun, a London-based Arab militant group, said Friday he had received an international call claiming responsibility for the attack on the American ship. It was in the name of ``Muhammad’s Army,″ an extremist group previously known to be active only in the Chechnya and Dagestan, in Russia.

Bakri, who is known to have ties to terror suspect Osama bin Laden, said he was skeptical of the claim but some of his skepticism waned after Friday’s bombing at the British Embassy because the group promised more attacks in its call Thursday. It warned that ``strikes will continue until the Muslim land and Palestine are liberated,″ he said.

Meanwhile, a close associate of bin Laden urged Muslims worldwide to attack U.S. and Israeli targets to avenge the deaths of Palestinians killed in bloody and protracted clashes with Israel.

Ayman el Zawahri, who was found guilty in absentia of the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, faxed his call for ``jihad,″ or holy war, to the Islamabad bureau of the Abu Dhabi channel of the United Arab Emirates Television, bureau chief Jamal Ismael said.

Islamic extremists have been active in Yemen. However, Yemen’s Prime Minister Abdul-Karim al-Iryani said in March that bin Laden, at one time had ``colleagues″ in Yemen but now ``has no place in Yemen, no military camps.″

The United States accuses bin Laden of organizing a network with followers across the Mideast, including Yemen, and says he masterminded the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa that killed 224 people.