Fears grow of renewed campaign of terror

French owner blames terrorists for explosion, while Arab TV runs tape purporting to be al-Qa'ida leader
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The Independent Online

AS THE fires raged out of control on board the French supertanker Limburg last night, fears were growing of a renewed terrorist campaign in the Gulf region, this time focused on oil tankers.

As the fires raged out of control on board the French supertanker Limburg last night, fears were growing of a renewed terrorist campaign in the Gulf region, this time focused on oil tankers.

Though its precise cause is still unknown, the explosion has inevitably kindled memories of the attack on the USS Cole in October 2000, when the American destroyer was all but sunk by an explosion after it was rammed by a small vessel during a refuelling stop at the port of Aden. That attack, in which 17 American sailors were killed, was blamed on Osama bin Laden's al-Qa'ida organisation.

Yemen's Transport and Marine Affairs Minister, Saeed Yafai, said one of the ship's tanks had exploded and ignited the fire, while a Yemeni official told the national news agency that the Limburg's captain had said a small fire on board had set off the explosion.

In Yemen, the French Vice Consul Marcel Goncalves told the news agency Agence France Presse: "It seems to be an attack in the same style as the USS Cole."

In Paris, François Rivasseau, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, would only say that it was too early to be sure what had caused the explosion, but other unnamed government officials said France had strong indications the blast was caused by an attack. President Jacques Chirac was said to be following developments closely.

At Euronav, the company which owns the Limburg, an official said the tanker's captain saw a small fishing boat – possibly the pilot vessel to bring it into port – come close to the tanker just before the explosion occurred, at 9.15am local time.

Alain Ferré, a Euronav director, said that a small fishing boat could not have caused such a huge blast unless it was carrying explosives. It was "difficult to imagine" that the blast, which tore a hole in the side of the Limburg, had been caused by a mere collision, he said.

One expert said it was "near impossible" for the explosion to have been accidental.

Another Euronav director, Jacques Moizan, pointed to the supertanker's double hull as a safeguard against all but the most deliberate attacks. "You can imagine the extreme high energy needed to open both hulls," he said.

Members of the Limburg's crew battled the blaze for three hours before giving up.

All 25 crew members – 17 Bulgarian and eight French – had been accounted for except for one Bulgarian, later reports said. But the tanker had been abandoned.

Mr Goncalves said the Yemeni authorities did not have the facilities to contain such a large fire. French forces based in Djibouti who do have the necessary equipment were too far away to provide assistance, he added.

A spokesman in Bahrain for the US Navy's 5th Fleet, which has aircraft carriers, destroyers and other warships stationed in the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea, said last night that the fire on the Limburg had not prompted any changes in security measures. "We're always on a posture ready for any kind of situation," Lieutenant Chris Davis said. The explosion could be a major embarrassment for Yemen, an impoverished country which has been trying to display its commitment to President George Bush's war on terror and to shake off its reputation as a hotbed of militant Islamism through a crackdown on dissidents.

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