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Explosion Damages French Oil Tanker; Cause Not Yet Known - 2002-10-06

A fire and explosion has left a French oil tanker severely damaged off the coast of Yemen. The Yemeni and French governments are at odds as to the cause of the blast.

French officials in Paris and Yemen's capital, Sanaa, are saying the tanker was hit by a small boat carrying explosives. They have not ruled out that it was a terrorist attack, although they add that it is too early to comment.

Earlier, an unnamed French official in Paris was quoted by news agencies as saying there were strong indications that it was a deliberate attack.

But Yemeni officials say their intelligence does not support a conclusion of terrorism and that they are investigating the incident.

Massive damage was reportedly caused to the tanker, the Limburg. A gapping hole was blown in the side of the vessel, which was in the Gulf of Aden off the southeastern Yemeni port of Mina al-Dabah.

Yemen's transport and marine affairs minister, Saeed Yafai, said the explosion occurred after the tanker's hold reportedly leaked crude oil that it was carrying, somehow sparking an internal explosion.

There also is conflicting information of the fate of the Limburg's crew. Some reports say about half of the 25 crewmembers were rescued after they jumped overboard.

The French tanker was carrying nearly 400,000 barrels of crude oil from Iran, with plans to load more in Yemen.

A French embassy official in Yemen said the explosion was reminiscent of the attack on the American destroyer U.S.S. Cole two years ago.

The Cole was harbored at Aden when a small boat loaded with explosives was driven into the ship's hull. Al-Qaeda terrorists were suspected of being behind the attack, in which 17 U.S. sailors were killed and 38 others wounded.