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Fire on French Tanker Off Yemen Raises Terrorism Fears


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Fire on French Tanker Off Yemen Raises Terrorism Fears


PARIS, Oct. 6 — A French oil tanker was on fire off the southeastern coast of Yemen after an explosion this morning as it headed for an oil terminal in the Gulf of Aden. By late tonight, the cause of the blast aboard the tanker Limburg was still unclear, but the incident immediately raised fears that terrorists had attacked one of the most vulnerable links in the oil-dependent global economy two years after an explosive-filled boat in nearby waters ripped a hole in the United States Navy destroyer Cole.

French diplomats and executives at the company that owns the tanker were quoted in early news agency reports as saying that they suspected a terrorist attack by a small boat that reportedly approached the tanker shortly before the explosion.

Yemeni officials, however, denied that there had been an attack and said the small boat had been sent to guide the tanker into port.

"We in Paris have no clue," said a senior French official here monitoring the investigation. "We fear that it is a terrorist act, but we probably need a couple of more days to see what happened."

In Washington, United States military officials said they had not yet received solid indications that the tanker blast was the work of terrorists and, at least temporarily, were classifying the incident as a shipboard accident. "Reports of a terrorist attack are, at this point, conjecture," an American military officer said.

All but one of the tanker's 25 crew members were rescued from the ship, which sent an inky plume into the sky and thousands of barrels of black oil into the sea. The French Embassy in Yemen said 12 crew members were hospitalized in the port city of Mukalla.

Even if the blast turns out to be an accident, the snap suggestion that terrorists were to blame is a measure of the anxiety in the region.

Yemen is Osama bin Laden's ancestral home, and some reports have placed him in the mountains there, where he is reported to have once said he would like to live. The explosion today occurred just one week before the two-year anniversary of the attack on the Cole, which killed 17 American sailors and has been blamed on Al Qaeda, Mr. bin Laden's terrorist network.

Maritime companies had been alerted early last month to possible terror attack on ships in the region. In advance of the Sept. 11 anniversary of the attacks in New York and Washington, Navy officials in Bahrain, home to the United States Fifth Fleet, issued an advisory to shipping lines warning of possible strikes by Al Qaeda against oil tankers.

Successful attacks on lumbering, oil-heavy tankers would be likely to roil world financial markets and could raise oil prices and batter confidence in a global economic system already shaken by the terrorist attacks in the United States last year and the prospect of a winter war in Iraq.

The Middle East accounts for more than half of the world's oil exports, including more than 90 percent of Asian crude oil imports and one-third of American and European net crude oil imports. But it is unlikely the impact of such a terrorist campaign would last very long.

"This is really a scare story," said Gary Ross, chief executive of Pira Energy Group, a New York-based oil-industry consulting firm. "It would put everyone on heightened alert and raise insurance rates, but it wouldn't materially affect supply."

During the so-called "tanker war" of the 1980's, when Iran and Iraq attacked oil tankers in the Persian Gulf in an attempt to damage each other's economies, insurers raised war risk insurance premiums for ships sailing into the gulf by 50 percent at one point but oil prices barely budged.

Since the Cole attack, Yemen has tried to assure the world that it is not a haven for Al Qaeda. It arrested more than 100 suspected members of the terrorist network and other Islamist groups in the months after Sept. 11, 2001, and has sent military patrols to hunt for Qaeda members in the mountains.

Last month, Yemeni security forces killed one man and seized four other suspected Qaeda members following a shootout in a northern suburb of Sana, the capital. Other suspected members got away.

Meanwhile, the Yemeni government has said it plans to put suspected accomplices in the Cole attack on trial in the next few days.

The Limburg, leased by the Malaysian state oil company Petronas, was carrying 397,000 barrels of crude oil from the Kharg Island terminal in Iran and was preparing to take on 1.5 million more barrels of Yemeni crude at an offshore terminal near the Red Sea port of Mina al-Dabah. The French-registered ship, which weighs 298,997 tons when fully loaded, is owned by Euronav, a subsidiary of the Belgian firm Compagnie Maritime Belge. It has a crew of 8 French citizens and 17 Bulgarians. One Bulgarian was reported missing.

President Jacques Chirac of France placed a telephone call to Yemen's president, Ali Abdallah Saleh, thanking him for the efforts to save the tanker's crew, Reuters reported. Mr. Chirac said French investigators would go to Yemen to join local experts in examining the tanker.

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