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France: Paris Opens Antiterrorism Probe Into Oil-Tanker Blast Near Yemen

A French supertanker is leaking oil off the coast of Yemen today after an explosion yesterday ruptured its double hull. Conflicting explanations have been given for the blast, but French authorities are not ruling out the possibility of a terrorist attack. French counterterrorism agents are preparing to examine the tanker "Limburg" together with Yemeni investigators.

Prague, 7 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- French counterterrorism experts are preparing to travel to Yemen where an oil slick from a disabled French supertanker has been spreading along the coast since an explosion ruptured and ignited the vessel yesterday.

Officials have yet to offer a conclusive explanation for the blast, but both Yemen and France say they are not ruling out the possibility of a terrorist attack.

Just hours after firefighters extinguished the blaze aboard the tanker "Limburg" this morning, French judicial officials announced that the antiterrorism branch of the Paris prosecutor's office had opened a preliminary enquiry.

A French diplomat in Yemen and the French firm Euronav, which owns the tanker, said yesterday that a small boat with explosives had rammed the "Limburg" just as it was entering the eastern Yemeni port of Mina al-Dabah in the Gulf of Aden.

Euronav director Jacques Moizan told reporters in Paris yesterday that his information about the explosion had come directly from the crew of the "Limburg." "We were informed [on Sunday] morning at [7:15] that an explosion took place at the starboard oil-storage tank. It seems that a small fishing boat appeared on the starboard side while the ship was taking a [port] pilot on board [at the entrance of the port]. As a result, a small collision occurred on the starboard side followed by an explosion and the fire," Moizan said.

With 390,000 barrels of Saudi crude oil on board at the time of the blast, Yemeni officials are now bracing for the environmental fallout of the spill.

Moizan said the "Limburg" is about two years old and was built with a strong double hull as a safety precaution against oil spills. He said a minor collision alone would not be enough to penetrate both hulls. "It seems it could be an attack, but the enquiry is in process. The captain is being questioned by the Yemeni authorities and we will know more later," Moizan said.

One member of the "Limburg's" crew of French and Bulgarian citizens has been missing since the time of the blast. The crew has been isolated from journalists by Yemen's security services. But RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service managed yesterday to telephone the second in command of the tanker, Bulgarian sailor Plamen Lozef. "I was sleeping at the moment [of the explosion]. What can I say? It was an unpleasant incident, very unpleasant, with the water burning all around you. I wouldn't wish it on anyone," Lozef said.

Lozef was not able to say whether the explosion was caused by terrorists. "Nobody can say anything. A blast and a blaze -- that was it. Some of us started swimming. Others remained [on board to fight the fire] but then also came [onto the land later]," Lozef said.

Yemeni Transport Minister Said el-Jaghai told reporters within hours of the blast that the fire on the "Limburg" was caused by technical problems aboard the ship.

But Yemeni President Ali Abdullah later phoned French President Jacques Chirac to say that an investigation was necessary and that terrorism should not be ruled out.

It was exactly two years ago this week that 17 U.S. sailors were killed when an explosives-laden rubber raft rammed the "U.S.S. Cole" warship in Yemen's port of Aden, located about 450 kilometers west of yesterday's blast. Washington says Al-Qaeda was responsible for the attack on the "U.S.S. Cole."

And just three weeks ago, U.S. Navy officials based in Bahrain issued a warning that Al-Qaeda operatives were thought to be planning an attack against commercial oil tankers in the region.

Kate Dourian, the Middle East editor for the "Platt's" oil-industry newsletter, told RFE/RL the U.S. Navy warning has strengthened suspicions within the oil sector that the tanker was targeted by a terrorist attack. "The U.S. Navy warned of possible Al-Qaeda attacks on shipping. That was on the 10th of September. It warned commercial shipping companies operating in the Middle East to be on their guard for a possible terrorist attack by Al-Qaeda. The advisory was sent warning of an Al-Qaeda threat. The [U.S. Navy officials] said that according to an unconfirmed report circulating within the regional shipping community, the Al-Qaeda terrorist group has planned attacks against oil tankers transiting the Arabian Gulf and Horn of Africa areas," Dourian said.

Dourian noted that the U.S. benchmark price for oil futures surged past the psychological barrier of $30 per barrel during electronic trading overnight in the United States. "The oil markets were up on Monday and traders were referring to the explosion of the tanker off of Yemen as one of the reasons, in addition to general tensions in the Middle East," Dourian said.

Oil prices continue to fluctuate today, an indication that traders are wary about getting locked into any new oil contracts. "So long as there is no confirmation that it was not a terrorist attack, oil markets are going to be jittery. There are about 50 million barrels of oil per day that goes through the [Persian] Gulf. So there is going to be a lot of jitters about the safety of tankers," Dourian said.

The first official to say on the record that the "Limburg" blast was the result of a terrorist attack was Marcel Goncalves, a vice consul at the French Embassy in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa.

But shortly after his remarks were reported by the semiofficial French news agency AFP, the French Foreign Ministry issued a statement distancing itself from the report.

The statement said it is inappropriate for any French official to comment on the cause of the explosion before competent Yemeni authorities have completed their investigation.

French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin today said that the cause of explosion has not yet been determined. But he said that nothing should be ruled out.

U.S. Navy officials say there are no plans to step up patrols in the region as the result of the incident.

(RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service's Georgi Koritarov in Sofia and Georgi Stoychev in Prague contributed to this report.)