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Boat Explodes Near USS Cole in Yemen Port, Several Sailors Killed or Missing

Aired October 12, 2000 - 1:00 p.m. ET


LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: An apparent suicide attack on a U.S. Navy destroyer refueling in Yemen. Americans have been killed and seriously wounded.

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: And in the West Bank and Gaza, Israel launches military strikes against selected targets after two Israeli soldiers were killed by a mob.

These stories will dominate our news coverage this afternoon.

Hello, I'm Natalie Allen.

WATERS: I'm Lou Waters.

The international community watches anxiously as the tempers flare and there's talk of war in the Middle East. There is a pro- Israeli demonstration going on in New York, and the stock market is in a dive. It's going to be an especially active afternoon, and we're going to be here for all of it.

The Pentagon now says the explosion that killed the four U.S. sailors today aboard a Navy destroyer in Yemen was no accident. Top officials tell CNN the USS Cole was almost certainly the victim of a well-planned attack by suicide bombers.

Part of the Navy's Fifth Fleet, the Cole had passed through the Suez Canal on Monday en route to the Persian Gulf. It sailed the Red Sea before making port in Aden, one of the deepest ports in the world, to take on fuel. What happened after that left numerous casualties and an 800-square-foot hole in the Cole's port side.

Kelly Wallace is at the White House. We'll get the latest from there. That's where we'll begin.

Kelly, what's new?

KELLY WALLACE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Lou, it's been a very fluid situation all morning into the early afternoon. Earlier on this day, U.S. officials saying that they were investigating this as a possible terrorist attack of some kind, but that they had not reached any conclusion. That was the message here at the White House.

As you've mentioned though, CNN's military affairs correspondent Jamie McIntyre is getting more information, a senior Pentagon official telling him -- an official with access to information surrounding the explosives -- that inclined to believe that this was a suicide terrorist attack by two men on a small boat. This official saying the Pentagon has reason to believe it was a terrorist attack and no reason to believe it was anything else.

As for what's happening here, U.S. President Bill Clinton arrived back here a little bit more than an hour ago. He happened to be up at his home in Chappaqua, New York, celebrating his 25th wedding anniversary with his wife when he learned earlier this morning about this development as well as developments in the Middle East. The president had called his defense secretary, William Cohen. He also spoke with his national security adviser, Sandy Berger, the president instructing his national security team to do everything possible to track down those responsible for this attack.

Mr. Clinton at this time is getting a briefing with his national security adviser, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Defense Secretary William Cohen, tracking this, but also, Lou, of course, as our viewers know, tracking the latest developments in the Middle East.

WATERS: And the State Department, Madeleine Albright appearing not to long ago asking reporters to be cautious in the reporting of this story. There seems to be caution all around in Washington. Why is that?

WALLACE: Absolutely. Well, again, I think that they were trying to ascertain the facts, the secretary telling reporters not to jump to any conclusions until all the facts were gathered.

Again, though, the Pentagon at one point today telling Jamie McIntyre that sometimes initial reports of some terrorist attacks may not be correct. But with more reporting, Jamie learning that in fact senior officials over at the Pentagon believing this has all the signs of a terrorist attack: U.S. officials saying right now that the federal government is doing everything it possibly can to help the sailors, basically sending resources, the FBI sending in resources from the region, the Navy sending in an anti-terrorism security team, basically sending in all the resources possible to investigate the situation and determine what or who may be responsible for this -- Lou.

WATERS: All right. Kelly Wallace over at the White House, stay in touch. We'll be back to you.

In fact, a preliminary indication of what happened in Aden, the Yemen port, is that a harbor tender boat came up alongside the USS Cole. Two men were aboard. The men on the tender took a line from the Cole and attached it to what is called a dolphin, which is a large buoy.

As the Cole prepared to refuel, we are getting information that the small both moved alongside the USS Cole again, and according to officials at the Pentagon, the two men stood at attention and then the small boat exploded. We will continue to gather further information. That's a preliminary indication of what happened in the port of Aden in Yemen overnight.

Natalie, what's next?

ALLEN: Well, reports show that this explosion was so powerful that it flipped a car 20 yards away, and it also shattered windows in nearby hotels and had folks -- televisions falling to the floor nearby.

George Terwilliger is a former deputy attorney general who specializes in counterterrorism. He joins us now from Washington with his insights.

What are you thinking about what you're hearing, sir, Washington saying that as far as it can tell this is almost certainly terrorism?

GEORGE TERWILLIGER, COUNTERTERRORISM EXPERT: Well, it's obviously a very tragic event, Natalie, and one that throws several different aspects of our government into action. I think the first priority for the government will be to protect our soldiers and sailors as well as civilians at other U.S. installations and on vessels in the region. Beyond that, I think there will be an intensive effort in terms of this particular incident to look into who did it and why, and see if it has anything at all to do with the wider picture in the Middle East.

ALLEN: And we've just learned that the military in that area has been put on high alert. Should this have happened regarding the tensions in the Middle East prior to this incident with this destroyer today?

TERWILLIGER: Well, I don't think it does any good to sort of second-guess those kinds of decisions now, and I don't really feel that I'd be competent to do that at any rate. It's obviously a time of great volatility in the Middle East. I think on the policy side, as General Scowcroft indicated when he was with you earlier today, the effort has to be to try to tone down the escalation of violence and turn down the heat in the Middle East and break this cycle.

ALLEN: What is the history -- let's talk a little bit about Yemen, where this ship had stopped to refuel. It was not one of these stops that would have been announced with a lot of people knowing about it. I -- the information we have is that ships -- U.S. ships had just recently started to refuel in Yemen. What can you tell us about activities there, renegade terrorist groups that might have been operating in that area?

TERWILLIGER: Well, obviously, there are a lot of people in groups in the Middle East, both with the motivation and the capability to commit something of this nature. The larger question, though, is who has the access to information, the intelligence, to be able to bring this off. I doubt very much if something of this nature was planned in a short period of time. So one of the questions I think that -- that the government will be looking into is when was the decision made to fuel this ship at that port on this particular day or in this particular period, and who knew about that, how widely was it disseminated, and that sort of thing, because that will aid looking into the question of who did this and why did it occur.

ALLEN: Many have talked about whether Yasser Arafat is losing control or has control of what is happening in the Middle East. And certainly, we have seen spinoff protests in wider areas and other Arab countries in that region. What concern should this be to the United States?

TERWILLIGER: Well, from a security perspective, and the security of our people and our installations overseas, this type of volatility and this escalation of the cycle of violence has to be a -- a very grave concern just to the safety of our people. In the larger picture than that, I'm sure the National Security Council and the administration's foreign and national security policy folks are looking very carefully into just -- trying to determine what is going on here, who is causing this and what leverage do we have and how do we best use to try to end this cycle of violence.

What level of control Mr. Arafat has I think is an open question. That is probably something that those with good access to current intelligence have to assess right now.

ALLEN: Could this -- could this -- do you know if this ship could have avoided Yemen? Can they not refuel at sea without having to come into a country which had seen some demonstrations recently with anti-American tones?

TERWILLIGER: Well, Natalie, Captain Fraser, I believe it was, that was with you earlier and some of the folks at the Pentagon are probably in a better position to assess that than I am.

But as we all know, sometimes our ships put into various foreign ports for more than just logistical reasons. There is sometimes a benefit to our foreign policy objectives of showing the flag in some places, and Yemen is a country where I think that our relationship with them is in a course of development that's basically been positive. So there may have been other reasons than simple logistics and then again there may not have been.

Whether or not some alternative was available and should have been used, who knows? But I don't think this is the time to second- guess those decisions.

ALLEN: George Terwilliger, thank you for joining us...

TERWILLIGER: You're welcome. Nice to be with you.

WATERS: And to help us better understand what's happening in that part of the world.

Yemen is something of a hotbed these days of, as Natalie mentioned, anti-American sentiment. Today's attack was a shock to all who heard it, though. And one of those people was a Yemeni journalist who spoke with CNN today earlier by telephone.


BASHRAHEEL BASHRAHEEL, "AL-AYAM" NEWSPAPER: Yes, there were a lot of people who were trying to see what's going on. The police were, you know, sealing off the area. But the immediate reaction from the people, there was just shock, because this was the first time this thing happened inside the port. The port is well-known to be secured and no one could get into the port itself. There is a residential area at one side of the port where -- and most of the houses on that side had shattered windows and glass. The explosion was huge. And a lot of people started calling the newspaper.




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