Sanaa, Oct. 6 (Reuters): A French supertanker blazed off the coast of Yemen today after an explosion ripped through its hold, triggering conflicting explanations of an internal fault and a bomb attack from a small boat.
Yemeni transport and marine affairs minister Saeed Yafai said one of the ship’s tanks had exploded, igniting the fire. In a statement to the state-run SABA news agency, a Yemeni official quoted the tanker’s captain as saying a small fire on board had set off the explosion.
But an official source in Paris said France had strong indications the blast was the result of an attack. French foreign ministry spokesman Francois Rivasseau said it was too early to say what had caused the explosion.
The ship’s owners, the French firm Euronav, said the blast occurred while the Limburg was meeting a pilot vessel to bring it into the port of Mina al-Dabah, near Mukalla in the Gulf of Aden.
Lloyds shipping service said a hole had been blown in the side of the tanker. All but one of the crew were accounted for.
Reports of a boat approaching the tanker revived memories of an attack in October 2000 on the US destroyer USS Cole, which was rammed by suicide bombers in a boat packed with explosives in the Yemeni port of Aden. The attack killed 17 US sailors.
Last month, the US navy warned of possible attacks on oil tankers in Gulf waters by the al Qaida network, blamed by Washington for the September 11 attacks on the US.
But the US navy in the region said it had no plans to step up patrols as a result of the incident.
Yafai, whose country has been working to shake off a name as a haven for Islamic militants, denied the tanker had been attacked. “The fire on the French ship was caused by explosions in one of its tanks which set off a huge fire,” he told SABA.
Yafai said all the crew had been rescued and officials said least 17 people were in hospital. The ship’s owners said one Bulgarian member of the crew of 25 was still missing.
Rivasseau, the French foreign ministry spokesman, said: “At this point, while waiting for the results of this inquiry, any comment on the cause of this fire would be premature.”
But the French official who declined to be identified said his country had a “very serious sign, solid information” that the blast was a terror attack.
The French military attache in Yemen, identified as Colonel Vial, told France’s LCI television the blast had occurred at the same time as a small boat approached the tanker, but added: “Other sources tell us it was an accidental explosion.”
He said there had been eight French and 17 Bulgarian crew.
A Western military source familiar with the area said he did not believe there had been an attack.
“As far as we can tell, this does not appear to be terrorist-related. It is not unheard-of for such explosions to take place on tankers,” the source said.
But a shipping executive in the Gulf said the blast was unlikely to be an accident, adding that the incident was likely to throw the crude tanker market into turmoil. “Insurance rates are bound to go up,” he added.
A Yemeni official said the authorities were trying to control the blaze. “The fire is still raging and the situation is very difficult,” one official in Aden said.
SABA said Yemeni Prime Minister Abdul Qader Bagammal had appealed to Canadian oil firm Nexen Inc. to help the authorities put out the blaze and mop up the large oil spill which is fast approaching the beaches of Mukalla town.
Oil industry sources said the 157,833-tonne Limburg had been carrying 397,000 barrels of crude and that it had been coming into port to load more oil. Industry sources said the tanker had been chartered by the Malaysian state oil company Petronas.
Washington blames the attack on the Cole on al Qaida, led by the Saudi-born militant Osama bin Laden.
Since the September 11 attacks, Yemen has arrested more than 100 suspected members of al Qaida and other Islamist groups.
The Arab state is bin Laden’s ancestral home, and many Yemenis have been arrested abroad as suspected al Qaida members.
In January, Yemen launched the only military campaign against al Qaida outside Afghanistan, where a US-led strike ousted the Taliban government that had sheltered bin Laden.