A court in Yemen has charged six alleged operatives of the al-Qaida terror network in connection with the bombing of the USS Cole four years ago.

The five of the suspects who are in Yemeni custody appeared in court under heavy guard. The sixth man, alleged ring leader Abdel Rahim al-Nashri, is in U.S. custody.

A reporter for the Yemen Times, Mohamed Al-Qadhi was at the trial. He said it lasted one hour, and that the suspected mastermind of the bombing, was charged in absentia.

"The trial started in the early morning around nine o'clock with of course tight security measures," he said. "The prosecutor accused the suspect terrorists of forming or setting up an armed gang, and joining al-Qaida and planning, plotting terrorist acts against the USS Cole, which affected the Yemeni-U.S. relationship."

In the attack in 2000, two suicide bombers in an explosive-laden boat rammed into the USS Cole as it was refueling in the Yemeni port city of Aden. The attack on the U.S. Navy destroyer killed 17 American sailors.

Mr. Al-Qadhi, the Yemen Times reporter, said that the judge at Wednesday's trial allowed the accused men to appoint lawyers to appear on their behalf when the case resumes next Wednesday. He said the judge wants the United States to allow Mr. al-Nashri to appear at the trial.

"The judge by the end of the session said that they will announce that this man is far away from justice, and that he should be there in Yemen to be tried and that they will announce it in Yemen media," added Mr. Al-Qadhi.

A western diplomat in Sanaa confirmed Yemeni officials are asking for the alleged ring leader to be handed over, and that representatives from the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation, the FBI, were present at Wednesday's court session.

Yemen began cracking down on militant groups, under U.S. pressure following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.