Al-Qaida link suspected in tanker blast

AL MUKALLA, Yemen -- A fiery explosion aboard a French oil tanker in the Arabian Sea resulted from an attack on the ship, U.S. and French officials concluded Thursday. The Americans said it was an act of terrorism most likely carried out by people with links to al-Qaida.

Investigators from France, Yemen and the United States had been trying to determine what caused the blaze Sunday on the Limburg that killed one crew member and sent 90,000 barrels of oil pouring into the Gulf of Aden.

"It's become clear it's an act of terrorism," a U.S. intelligence official in Washington said on the condition of anonymity.

Economic target

Al-Qaida would consider an oil tanker an economic target, the official said. Recent statements from al-Qaida leaders have suggested attacks on economic targets are imminent.

The attack bears a number of similarities to the suicide boat strike on the USS Cole in October 2000, the official said.

France's Foreign Ministry also said the ship had been attacked. "The initial results of the inquiry carried out by French, Yemeni and American investigators suggest the explosion Oct. 6 on board the French oil tanker, the Limburg, was due to an attack," a statement said.

Earlier, a U.S. defense official said several factors pointed to a terrorist attack: the hole in the ship is at sea level, which is consistent with it being struck by a boat or weapon, and the vessel is relatively new, making it unlikely that a malfunction caused the blast.

U.S. intelligence also picked up indications in recent weeks that terrorist groups remain interested in targeting maritime shipping, the defense official said.

The pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat reported Thursday that it received a statement from a militant Muslim group claiming it attacked the ship. The paper said the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army claimed it carried out the explosion to avenge the execution of one of its leaders for the 1998 kidnapping of 16 Western tourists.

U.S. counterterrorism officials are skeptical of the claim of responsibility from the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army, the intelligence official said, although officials believe the group has al-Qaida ties. Instead, other, unspecified operatives with links to al-Qaida are believed to have been responsible, the official said.

Speculation that the incident was an act of terrorism arose shortly after the explosion, which spilled oil along 45 miles of coastline. The Limburg's captain later told The Associated Press a crew member saw a fishing boat approach the tanker shortly before the blast.

At first, Yemen, which has been eager to emphasize its commitment to the U.S.-led war on terrorism, sought to dismiss reports that the blast was deliberate.

But a Yemeni government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the investigation so far has yielded contradictory information and the blast may in fact have been an act of terrorism.

Saeed Yafaei, Yemen's minister of sea transport, said "the door is open to all possibilities" about the cause of the explosion -- a view echoed by U.S. and French authorities.

The United States has sent a team of Navy investigators, but White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Thursday that "We don't have any conclusions yet."

The Aden-Abyan Islamic Army was formed by Yemeni and other Arab fighters who, like Osama bin Laden, helped Afghans oust Soviet invaders with U.S. help in the 1980s.

A Yemeni official, Abdul Kader Hilal, questioned the reported Aden-Abyan Islamic Army claim, saying the group does not have the means to carry out such an operation. But he said one of the group's members was among those detained for questioning.