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Yemen probes French tanker blast

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SANA'A, Yemen (CNN) -- Yemeni authorities probed an explosion and fire aboard a French tanker Sunday as they tried to prevent the massive vessel from running aground and spilling more of the 397,000 barrels of crude oil it carried.

Firefighters managed to put out the fire burning outside the 332-meter (1,090-foot) tanker Limburg and were trying to extinguish the flames in the interior late Sunday.

One member of the 25-person crew was missing, but the other 24 were rescued, authorities said.

French officials initially said the blast was a suicide attack similar to the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Yemen's Port of Aden. They later said they would wait for the results of the Yemeni investigation.

"Here in this case, we have not enough elements which allows us to formulate a commentary ... which would point towards a terrorist attack," said Francois Rivasseau, a spokesman for the French Foreign Ministry.

"This is a serious issue, a serious matter, and we have to wait for the complete results of the police researchers."

Yemeni officials initially denied the blast was caused by a terror attack, but later pulled back to the same "wait and see" position the French adopted.

A spokesman for France Shipmanagement, the ship's operator, said the company could not find any other explanation for the blast except terrorism.

The spokesman said the explosion happened as the Limburg was taking on a pilot to guide it into al-Dhaba Port in al-Shaher city, more than 550 kilometers (342 miles) east of the Port of Aden.

"One of the junior officers saw a boat, a small craft approach with relatively high speed," said the spokesman, Peter Raes. "He thought it may have collided with our ship. But since our Limburg is a very large ship, he didn't feel it, they didn't feel it. But shortly afterward there was an explosion."

Yemeni officials said the only small boat in the area was the pilot boat.

U.S. military sources told CNN they had no information to support a terrorist attack theory. Their information indicated an electrical fire sparked the explosion, they said.

Raes said that made no sense for the 2-year-old diesel-powered Limburg.

"As far as we are concerned, it's a double-hulled ship, so she's absolutely protected from collision with a small craft," Raes said. "There's no electrical wiring in that part of ship [where the explosion occurred].

"We see no reason why an explosion would occur. ... The only thing we can think about is a similarity to the American warship Cole."

Raes was quick to point out that although the fire had been contained, the area was still too hot for investigators to enter.

"That will be very obvious when the fire is cool if it was an inside explosion or an outside explosion," he said. "We are looking forward to that information."

USS Cole
USS Cole: 17 U.S. sailors were killed in a terror attack in the Gulf of Aden two years ago

Raes said about 12 of the ship's 25-member crew leaped overboard at the time of the explosion and were rescued by tugboats. The captain and the remaining crew members stayed to fight the fire but eventually had to abandon ship, Raes said.

French officials said eight of the crew were French and 17 were Bulgarian. One of the Bulgarians was missing.

Officials said the ship's captain was among those rescued.

The Yemeni government was setting up operations in nearby al-Mukalla and in the capital Sana'a, a high-level Yemeni government source said. The French Foreign Ministry had booked a room at an al-Mukalla hotel, a spokesman for the hotel said, and officials were expected to arrive Tuesday.

While the cause of the blast remained unclear, environmental concerns edged toward center stage.

Wind was pushing the still-burning Limburg closer to al-Mukalla and the coast, officials said. The ship already had leaked a large amount of its cargo into the Gulf of Aden, though officials said they believed the ship would run aground in shallow waters later Sunday or early Monday.

As darkness fell over the area, officials feared it would be too difficult to know where to drop an anchor to stop the ship.

Shallow waters 1 to 1.5 kilometers (.62-.93 miles) from shore -- site of a reef that is a popular spot for divers and host to numerous species of colorful fish -- are at grave risk of contamination, said a spokesman for the Hadramount Hotel, about a half-hour's drive from the al Dhaba port and one of the area's main hotels.

Yemeni officials have asked for assistance in dealing with what they say could be an environmental catastrophe.

President Bush was informed of the explosion during early-morning intelligence briefings at his family's compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, said White House press secretary Ari Fleischer.

Administration spokesman Scott Stanzel said "no conclusions have been made" about what caused the blast and said State Department officials were in touch with the governments of Yemen and France.

CNN correspondents Jim Bittermann, Barbara Starr, Sheila MacVicar and Suzanne Malveaux and CNN Producer Alphonso Van Marsh contributed to this report.

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