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October 7, 2002

Terrorist attack on French tanker?

Though Yemeni authorities have been trying to downplay the possibility, the owners of the Limburg, the French tanker still blazing off Yemen. believe the ship is the victim of a terrorist attack. The French Government has said it is awaiting the results of inquiries before commenting on the cause of the incident, but Foreign Minister Donique de Villepin said today that "nothing is being excluded."

Meantime, as experts from France headed for Yemen to investigate, an oil slick from the blazing ship threatened to spread along the Arabian coast.

A number of the ship's crew of 25 (eight French and 17 Bulgarian) have been injured and one Bulgarian crew member is missing.

The incident comes after a warning last month by the U.S. Navy Maritime Liaison Office in Bahrain saying that the Al Qaeda terrorist group had planned attacks against oil tankers transiting the Arabian Gulf and Horn of Africa areas. "While the U.S. Navy has no specific details on the timing or means of the planned attacks, and there are no indications than an attack is imminent," said the Navy warning, "the threat should be regarded seriously. This reporting substantiates previous indications of Al Qaeda intent to attack commercial shipping as a means of creating economic instability."

The apparent attack on the Limburg comes two years after the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen.

The Limburg is owned by Euronav SA, the French unit of Compagnie Maritime Belge's Euronav Luxembourg subsidiary. It is managed by another CMB/Euronav subsidiary France Ship Management.

"In my opinion, this was a terrorist attack," Euronav director Jacques Moizan told the BBC. "The crew saw a high-speed vessel approaching on the starboard side."

According to BBC coverage of the story, the captain of the Limburg reported an explosion which was followed by a fire on Sunday morning as the ship came into the port of Aden from Iran.

The BBC quotes Captain Peter Raes, managing director of Euronav, as saying it would be "near impossible" for an accidental explosion to have taken place.

He said the Limburg was a new, double-hulled ship, and was barely moving at the time of the explosion, which happened during good weather.

According to the BBC, Raes said that the force of the apparent impact had pierced both of the ship's double hulls and penetrated 7 to 8 meters into the cargo hold, which was loaded with crude oil.

Raes said that he did not believe that destruction of such extent could have been caused unless the smaller craft had explosives on board, particularly as the kind of heavy crude oil the Limburg was carrying was not particularly flammable.

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