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Investigators Probe Tanker Blast Called Terrorist Attack by Owner

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
THE WASHINGTON POST -- KUWAIT CITY, Kuwait

Yemeni and French investigators launched a probe Monday into the cause of an explosion aboard a French oil tanker in the Gulf of Aden that the ship’s owner contends was caused by a terrorist attack.

The ship was rocked by a blast and engulfed in flames on Sunday morning as it neared Mina al-Dabah, a port close to the city of Al Mukalla, about 200 miles southeast of the Yemeni capital, Sanaa. Officials said the fire, fueled by nearly 1.6 million gallons of crude oil aboard the tanker, was extinguished Monday.

French and Yemeni officials said it was too early to determine what caused the blast on the ship, named the Limburg. A Yemeni official said his government believes an oil leak sparked a fire and caused the blast. French officials said that they could not rule out terrorism, but that they had not seen enough evidence to indicate the blast was set off deliberately.

Yemeni journalists who were escorted close to the still-smoldering tanker reported seeing a charred hole about three feet wide on one side of the ship. The journalists said twisted metal around the hole pointed outward, perhaps indicating the explosion came from inside the tanker. Officials accompanying the journalists said it was the only hole.

The French firm that owns the ship, Euronav, repeated its assertion that the blast was intentional and likely caused by an explosive-laden fishing boat that pulled up to the tanker. The firm said it would have been impossible for the smaller boat to have caused the explosion simply by bumping into the tanker, which has a double hull.

Oil prices were largely unaffected by the tanker explosion, but one oil analyst, Fadel Gheit of the New York stock brokerage Fahnestock & Co., said he assumed the blast was the result of a terrorist act and that it would have an economic impact.

All but one of the 25 members of the French and Bulgarian crew were rescued, officials said.