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Wednesday October 18, 2000

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USS Cole attack linked to two men

By The Associated Press

ADEN, Yemen - Yemeni investigators have found bomb-making equipment in a house near the port of Aden and believe two men who spent several days there are linked to the bombing of the USS Cole, security officials said yesterday.

Also yesterday, the bodies of six of the 17 victims were removed from the ship, leaving six still concealed in the wreckage. Officials had earlier said seven bodies were recovered yesterday, but later corrected the figure.

The security officials identified the men believed linked to the blast, who have disappeared, only as non-Yemeni Arabs. Other Yemeni officials said they were Saudi.

The disclosure comes a day after Yemen reversed its earlier position and called the blast "a premeditated criminal act." That gave a crucial boost to the investigation. The country's security forces interrogated dozens of port workers and others Monday, including the head of the company that services U.S. warships.

Several people remained in a highly guarded camp on Aden's outskirts but it was unclear whether they were considered firm suspects in the explosion that tore a 40-by-40-foot hole in the destroyer.

The security officials said bomb-making materials were found when the house was searched Monday. They did not elaborate on the materials.

The men were believed to have entered Yemen four days before Thursday's bombing, the officials said. They did not say which country the men had traveled from.

U.S. officials believe the attackers brought a small explosives-laden boat near the Cole and detonated it in a suicide attack. Two men were seen standing up in the small boat before the explosion, officials said.

Debris collected from blast scene has arrived in Washington for FBI analysis, federal law enforcement officials said.

There has been no credible claim of responsibility for the deadliest terrorist attack on the U.S. military since the 1996 bombing of an Air Force barracks in Saudi Arabia that killed 19.

Navy divers had been working in the tangled wreckage for days to extricate two bodies that had been pinpointed but were unreachable. They also were trying to find 10 others who were missing.

Yesterday, six bodies from both above and below the water line were recovered, Rear Adm. Mark Fitzgerald said.

A memorial service is scheduled for today at Norfolk Naval Station, the Cole's home port in Virginia.

Meanwhile, four U.S. sailors seriously injured in the explosion flew home yesterday from Germany. Two critically injured shipmates remained at the military's Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in western Germany.

The three men and a woman arrived on an army bus and were carried on stretchers onto a C-141 transport plane bound for a Norfolk, Va., naval base. One gave a thumbs up.

Thirty-three other injured sailors returned to the United States over the weekend, and 13 had been released from a Virginia hospital by Monday.

Seaman Apprentice Andrew Nemeth said he had just picked up his meal from the mess hall when the blast hit.

"I bounced off the ceiling and landed on the deck," Nemeth, 19, recounted Monday after returning to the United States. "I felt fuel spraying. I thought at first, me being an engineer, that a fuel line had been busted."

He called the Cole's attackers cowards and said he feels "a little bit of hate."

"You feel like you were snuck up on," Nemeth said.

Thursday's explosion was so powerful that it buckled the deck and turned the attack boat into "confetti-sized" bits, an official said.

Many Yemenis do not believe the attack was the result of a homegrown plot, and yesterday's disclosures put the spotlight on neighboring Saudi Arabia.

Decades of border disputes have marred relations between Yemen and Saudi Arabia. The two countries signed an agreement in June to settle the disputes. Yemen has long contested Saudi Arabia's claim to three Red Sea islands and parts of the Empty Quarter, a vast desert region with potentially lucrative oil deposits.

In the bombing of the Cole, immediate suspicion fell on Osama bin Laden, who is accused in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people. That August, the United States fired dozens of Tomahawk cruise missiles on eastern Afghanistan in an attempt to kill bin Laden.

In his first statement since December 1998, bin Laden warned yesterday against another attack. He said an attack would not kill him and vowed to continue his battle against the "enemies of Islam." He made no direct reference to the Yemen attack, but Afghanistan's Taliban rulers denied Monday that bin Laden was involved.

Bin Laden is a Saudi of Yemeni descent living in exile in Afghanistan.