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Sunday, 6 October, 2002, 21:56 GMT 22:56 UK
Craft 'rammed' Yemen oil tanker
Limburg on fire
Smoke billows from the Limburg off south-east Yemen
The owners of a French oil tanker on fire off the coast of Yemen say they believe it was rammed by a smaller boat, before exploding into flames.


A junior officer saw a craft approaching the Limburg. He was of the opinion that we touched that craft and then there was an explosion

Tanker company MD Peter Raes
A junior officer on board the Limburg reported seeing a small craft "fast approaching" the tanker in the port of Ash Shihr, at Mukallah, 570 kilometres (353 miles) east of Aden, and believes the two vessels touched before an explosion occurred.

Yemeni officials say they do not consider the blast an act of sabotage.

But Captain Peter Raes, managing director of France Ship, told BBC News Online it would be "near impossible" for an accidental explosion to have taken place, and that explosives were likely to have been on board the vessel which crashed.

Hole in the hull of USS Cole
The USS Cole attack was blamed on al-Qaeda
All but one of the ship's 25 crew have safely evacuated and have suffered only minor injuries. One Bulgarian fitter is still unaccounted for.

An attack on the American warship the USS Cole near in the Yemeni port of Aden two years ago killed 17 US servicemen.

Captain Raes said that attack, which was blamed on al-Qaeda, was his "only point of reference" and that he had never seen any other similar incidents of vessels exploding.

'Serious speed'

"A junior officer saw a craft approaching the Limburg. He was of the opinion that we touched that craft and then there was an explosion," Captain Raes said.

He said that other explanations proposed by the Yemeni authorities, though theoretically possible, were "practically impossible".

map
An onboard fire or oil leak have been mooted as possible causes of the disaster.

Captain Raes said the Limburg was a new, double-hulled ship, and was barely moving at the time of the explosion, which took place during good weather.

He said that the force of the apparent impact had pierced both hulls and penetrated 7-8 metres into the cargo hold, which was loaded with crude oil.

He said only a very large ship, or one moving at "serious speeds" would be able to cause that damage.

He said that he did not believe that extent of destruction 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.

Al-Qaeda crackdown

An early response from a French diplomat at the embassy in the Yemeni capital, Sana'a, also compared the Limburg disaster with the USS Cole attack.

However, in a more cautious statement, the French Foreign Ministry said it was too early to say what had caused the explosion.

The BBC's Heba Saleh says the Yemeni Government has been keen to shed its country's image as a safe haven for al-Qaeda militants.

So far, the authorities have arrested more than 100 suspected members of the group and of other Islamic organisations.

Those accused of the USS Cole attack are due to go on trial in the coming weeks.

Massive blaze

The Limburg's captain reported an explosion on board at 0915 (0615 GMT) followed by fire, as the ship came into the port from Iran to complete its loading.

At the time of the blast, the Limburg was picking up a pilot to guide it into the terminal.

Eyewitnesses are reported to have described being shaken by the explosion and then seeing a massive column of smoke rising from the site.

Unable to control the fire, the crew abandoned ship at 1200 (0900 GMT)

An oil industry source told Reuters that 397,000 barrels of crude was already on board.

French Vice-Consul in Sana'a, Marcel Goncalves, said the Yemeni authorities did not have the facilities to contain such a large fire.

French forces based in Djibouti who do have the necessary equipment are too far away to provide assistance, he said.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Jon Sopel in Paris
"The fear is that this is a repeat of the attack on the USS Cole"
Ship owners representative Peter Raes
"That little craft may have collided with our ship and shortly after that there was an explosion"
See also:

06 Oct 02 | Middle East
21 Sep 02 | Middle East
03 Aug 02 | From Our Own Correspondent
30 Oct 00 | Middle East
07 Mar 02 | Country profiles
Links to more Middle East stories are at the foot of the page.


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