Authorities are examining the circumstances surrounding the explosion and fire that ripped through the French supertanker Limburg on Sunday morning in the Gulf of Aden off the coast of Yemen. While all but one of the crew is safe and accounted for, the tanker continues to burn, and has spilled a massive amount of crude oil.
While refusing to confirm that the ship had been attacked by terrorists using a small boat packed with explosives, the incident is highly similar to the attack on the U.S. Destroyer Cole in the same area two years ago.
A BBC report indicated that internal causes appeared unlikely. The new double-hulled tanker, loaded with 397,000 barrels of heavy crude oil, was considered extremely safe. A French Maritime spokesman indicated that even if it were rammed by a sizeable vessel, the double hull would have resisted serious damage, and no fire would have occurred.
A crewman on the vessel was reported to have described a “fast approaching” small boat that struck the Limburg on the starboard side, and was followed almost immediately afterward by a huge explosion, indicating a deliberate attack.
U.S. officials had previously issued warnings that they had information indicating that the terrorist al-Qaeda network was planning attacks on tankers plying the Gulf, one of the busiest waterways in the world for oil shipments. Al Qaeda leader bin Laden has close ancestral ties to Yemen, which have led to speculation that there may be many members of the terrorist group hiding in the country.
If investigating authorities conclude that the Limburg was the victim of a terrorist attack, it would probably trigger a new round of rate increases for tankers carrying oil shipments in the Gulf, already at record levels due to the tension in the region over a possible war with Iraq, and the aftereffects of Sept. 11.
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