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Materials linked to bombing of 'Cole'

Investigators say the men who built the bombs probably did not drive the boat; they are too valued for a suicide mission.

©Washington Post

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 18, 2000

ADEN, Yemen -- Yemeni investigators have discovered an apartment with bomb-making material near the Aden port and have connected as many as two men who stayed there to the apparent terrorist attack that killed 17 American sailors aboard the USS Cole, U.S. and Yemeni officials said Tuesday.

The material was uncovered Monday during a search of the premises, but investigators found no sign of its occupants, who arrived there about four days before Thursday's bombing, according to officials from both countries. They were described by some Yemeni security officials as non-Yemeni Arabs, by others specifically as Saudis.

"We have already received some information from the Yemenis that provides significant leads," said the U.S. ambassador to Yemen, Barbara Bodine. She declined to provide details about what material was discovered at the apartment but said: "Certainly, from yesterday to today it has been a quantum leap."

"That is going to be a treasure trove of information for investigators," said Bob Blitzer, the former FBI head of counterterrorism. "There may be tools, wires and parts of the detonating device. ... If there are any travel documents, that would be a real bonus."

The possibility that the explosion could be tied to Saudi nationals was seen as significant. Although they have no evidence, U.S. officials have named the exiled Saudi militant Osama bin Laden and his followers as suspects. Bin Laden has been indicted by a U.S. grand jury in connection with the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people. The United States retaliated for the embassy attacks by firing Tomahawk cruise missiles on a paramilitary camp linked to bin Laden in Afghanistan.

In his first public statement in nearly two years, bin Laden was quoted in a Pakistani newspaper, the Jang, as saying he would survive any new attack and continue his campaign to rid Saudi Arabia and the rest of the region of U.S. military presence.

"The dream to kill me will never be completed," he was quoted as saying. "I am not afraid of the American threats against me. ... As long as I am alive there will be no rest for the enemies of Islam."

He did not mention the bombing in Aden and has not taken responsibility for it. The Taleban government of Afghanistan, where bin Laden lives, said earlier that he was not behind the explosion in Aden and is unable to communicate with followers outside Afghanistan.

Discovery of the apartment with bomb material was revealed a day after Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh cited new evidence in calling the explosion a "planned criminal act," reversing an earlier position that it was likely an accident. At the time, Yemeni officials did not elaborate on this new evidence. A government spokesman declined to comment Tuesday on whether the discovery was behind the president's change of view.

According to the Washington Post, Clinton administration officials said the people who vacated the apartment are not thought to be the same two who died carrying out the attack. The reasoning, officials said, is that someone who can successfully build powerful, complex explosives is deemed too valuable to die carrying out a suicide attack.

With a new trail to follow, FBI and Yemeni investigators began their first day of joint efforts to find who was behind the attack, apparently carried out by suicide bombers aboard a small harbor work boat that had pulled aside the Cole as it was mooring for refueling. While Yemeni police, military and intelligence officers lack technical sophistication, U.S. officials praised them for the willingness they have displayed so far in coordinating with FBI agents.

"We have been extraordinarily pleased and gratified," Bodine said.

The Post reported, quoting a senior U.S. official, that FBI agents will take the lead on technical and forensic work, with their local counterparts taking responsibility for questioning suspects. So far, Yemeni security forces have interrogated hundreds of port workers and others, including the head of the company that services U.S. warships.

Yemeni interrogation techniques have been roundly criticized by human rights groups. The State Department's most recent human rights report ranked Yemen's performance as poor, finding that security forces arbitrarily arrest citizens and torture and abuse prisoners, in some cases to death.

The FBI investigation remains at the initial stage of collecting and examining physical evidence, including confetti-like shards scattered over the Cole and surrounding waters from the small boat that triggered the explosion. Some fragments from the blast were shipped to the United States for analysis by the first FBI agents to arrive after the attack. That initial evidence arrived on U.S. shores Monday night.

Bodine said completing the probe could take a long time because the ultimate goal is "to see how far back we can walk this."

U.S. Navy divers conducting a painstaking search inside the Cole's flooded compartments recovered the bodies of six more sailors. They were to be flown out of Yemen after they were all identified. President Clinton is to preside over a memorial service for all the bombing victims today in Norfolk, Va.

- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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