Missiles miss U.S. warship; Jordan fears future attacks
Saturday, August 20, 2005
The rocket, which killed a Jordanian soldier, stokes fears that terrorists are now targeting Sinai Peninsula.
AQABA, Jordan -- It was literally a shot across the bow.
A Katyusha rocket whizzed over the deck of a U.S. Navy amphibious assault ship in this Jordanian port and crashed into a warehouse, killing a Jordanian soldier. Two other missiles flew the other direction -- toward Israel -- one of them nearly hitting a taxi.
The rocket barrage Friday morning was a startling wake-up for Aqaba, a usually sleepy tourist town on Jordan's tiny strip of coast next to Israel at the northern end of the Red Sea. It was a reminder that Jordan, too, is in the sights of Islamic extremists.
Jordanian security forces hunted for at least six Egyptian, Syrian and Iraqi suspects, and an al-Qaida-linked group that previously claimed responsibility for terror bombings in three Egyptian resorts said it staged the attack here -- the most serious strike at the Navy since the USS Cole bombing nearly five years ago.
A string of attacks over 10 months has raised fears that Islamic extremists are opening a new arena of combat in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula and the Gulf of Aqaba, an area bordered by Israel, Egypt and Jordan that is known for carefree tourist resorts and Arab-Israeli peace talks.
In addition to striking U.S. targets, some extremist Muslims would like to topple the governments of Jordan and Egypt, which are longtime allies of Washington and also have peace treaties with Israel.
The Abdullah Azzam Brigades, a militant group that claimed to be behind bombings which killed at least 64 people at Sharm el-Sheik in July and 34 people at two other Egyptian resorts last October, posted a statement on the Internet saying its fighters fired the rockets Friday.
"A group of our holy warriors ... targeted a gathering of American military ships docking in Aqaba port," said the statement, which also threatened to bring down King Abdullah II of Jordan.
One rocket sailed over the bow of the USS Ashland about 8:44 a.m., Lt. Cmdr. Charlie Brown, a spokesman for the U.S. 5th Fleet in Bahrain, said.
The missile hit a nearby Jordanian military warehouse that U.S. forces use to store goods bound for Iraq, Jordanian officials said. The blast killed one Jordanian soldier and wounded another, the state Petra news agency reported. No Americans were injured.
Brown said the Ashland had docked on Aug. 13 with the helicopter carrier USS Kearsarge at Aqaba's port, south of the city, for joint exercises with Jordan's military. Both vessels left after the attack as a precaution, he said.
The vessels, which are based in Norfolk, Va., carried elements of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit from Camp Lejeune, N.C. It was unknown how many Marines and sailors were on board, but the Ashland can carry up to 400 sailors and 500 Marines and the Kearsarge 1,100 crew and 1,900 Marines.
Cmdr. Jeff Breslau, another 5th Fleet spokesman, said he knew of no specific warnings of imminent attack, but he said U.S. warships in the Middle East always operate under increased security.
He said the Navy assumed the rocket was fired at the U.S. ships and missed, but authorities had not confirmed that. Several civilian cargo ships were docked nearby.
The Bush administration condemned the attack.
"We are investigating the matter and will cooperate with local Jordanian officials on the attacks," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino, who was with the vacationing President Bush in Crawford, Texas.
It was the most serious attack involving a Navy vessel since October 2000, when al-Qaida-linked militants rammed a boat loaded with explosives into the destroyer Cole off Yemen, killing 17 sailors and severely damaging the vessel.
Also in the region, a small Navy craft intercepted a dhow approaching an Iraqi oil platform in the Persian Gulf last year and the dhow exploded, killing two sailors and a Coast Guardsman.
All three rockets fired on Friday -- the one at the port and the two at Israel -- appeared to have been fired from a building in a warehouse district in the hills on Aqaba's northern edge, about 5 miles from the port, said a Jordanian intelligence official who showed journalists the site.
Two Katyusha rockets -- highly inaccurate unguided weapons used by Lebanon's Hezbollah guerrillas to attack northern Israel -- were fired to the west toward Israel. One sailed across the border, hitting a road about 15 yards from the perimeter fence at the airport for the resort of Eilat, about nine miles from Aqaba.
"I heard a noise, the car shook, and I kept driving for two more meters (yards)," said Israeli cab driver Meir Farhan, 40, who suffered minor wounds. "I didn't realize what it was. When I went out of the car I saw a hole in the ground on the asphalt."
The third rocket hit the backyard wall of Jordan's Princess Haya Military Hospital, which lies between the suspected firing site and the Israeli border.
The two-story building from which the rockets were apparently launched has garages on the ground floor. On the second floor is a 3-by-3-foot window from which the attackers are thought to have fired the rockets, said the intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of intelligence agency rules.
The building was rented this week by four people holding Egyptian and Iraqi nationalities, Jordan's state-run Petra news agency reported, citing preliminary investigations.
Authorities scoured Aqaba and its vicinity for up to six suspects, including possibly Syrians, who were believed to have escaped in a vehicle with Kuwaiti license plates, a security official in Amman, the capital, told AP. He agreed to discuss the hunt on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
Associated Press writers Jamal Halaby in Amman and John J. Lumpkin in Washington contributed to this report.