Yemeni warship bombers kill five US sailors

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The Independent Online

The rubber boat that pulled alongside the port side of the USS Cole in its berth in the Yemeni port of Aden yesterday may have been tiny, but the hole it ripped in the side of the vessel was as big as a house.

The rubber boat that pulled alongside the port side of the USS Cole in its berth in the Yemeni port of Aden yesterday may have been tiny, but the hole it ripped in the side of the vessel was as big as a house.

The blast did more than kill five sailors and injure 36, five of them seriously. It plunged all of the United States into profound shock and sorrow.

Washington assumed the worst. The terrorist attack against an American target the Pentagon and the US intelligence community had feared since the return of violence to the Middle East two weeks ago had happened.

And America was quickly warning that whoever was responsible would be punished with all the force the superpower can muster.

America's recurring nightmare is terrorist attacks on its citizens abroad, especially in the Middle East. The blast was a reminder of the bombings two summers ago of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

The Cole, a sophisticated Aegis-class destroyer launched four years ago to protect aircraft carriers, had been warned to be on high alert. The small inflatable Zodiac that exploded was thought to have been helping her to dock for refuelling.

Within moments of news of the blast, aides scrambled to get President Bill Clinton on board Air Force One for the short flight to the White House from his new home in New York state. Almost immediately, news came in of the Ramallah murder of the two Israeli plain-clothes agents.

The Attorney General, Janet Reno, said FBI teams had been sent to investigate. Both candidates in the Presidential race, Al Gore and George W Bush, predicted swift and merciless American retribution.

Yemen, like other countries in the Middle East, has had daily demonstrations in its cities in support of the Palestinians. Anti-Israel and, by extension, anti-US, sentiment was simmering.

The Cole, based in Virginia, was cruising from the Mediterranean to new duties with the US Fifth Fleet, based in Bahrain, in the Gulf. The Zodiac was said to be among a few small craft helping the warship to berth at a remote refuelling pier.

Because the boat was under contract to be near the ship for assistance with mooring lines, there may have been no special scrutiny of it.

The crew of the Zodiac had apparently just tied one of the Cole's berthing lines to a buoy when it turned around and began to approach the larger vessel for a second time.

Witnesses said two men on board the inflatable, then almost alongside, were rising to their feet as the blast erupted. The hole in the ship measured 20ft by 40ft and efforts continued all day yesterday to keep her afloat. Flooding had already caused a list of several degrees.

Ahmed Mohammed Al-Naderi, manager of the port-side Rock Hotel, said: "The explosion was so loud I thought it was from inside the hotel.

"The windows in 21 of our 33 rooms were shattered, and many of the television sets fell and broke. Thank God, none of the guests or hotel personnel was injured."

There was no definitive evidence pointing to terrorism, but officials in America considered any other explanation barely credible.

The fact that the Cole, with a crew of 350, was scheduled only to be in the port for four hours suggested a carefully planned and orchestrated attack. Vice-President Al Gore told reporters: "I think it is unlikely it was an accident. If it is determined to be the result of a terrorist operation, thoseresponsible should know that the United States will notrest until the perpetrators are held accountable."

Mr Bush also took the opportunity to speak out, saying "there must be consequences". He said he was "saddened and angered by the cowardly attack on this naval vessel in Yemen".

Both candidates stepped up their rhetoric demanding action from the Palestinian President, Yasser Arafat, to take steps to end the violence between Palestinians and Israel.