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Friday October 20, 2000

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Boy helps in USS Cole bomb probe

By The Associated Press

ADEN, Yemen - A 12-year-old Yemeni boy has told investigators that a man paid him to watch his car, then took to sea in a small boat and never returned, providing a key early lead in their search for clues about what happened to the USS Cole.

Authorities have been focusing on two men who rented an Aden apartment where bomb-making material was later found. The two have not been seen since the U.S. warship was bombed Oct. 12 as it arrived in Aden to refuel, killing 17 sailors and injuring 39.

The Navy announced yesterday that it recovered the last four bodies of sailors killed in the blast. Thirteen bodies already had been flown to the United States, and the final four will be returned home soon.

FBI director Louis Freeh, in Yemen for talks with President Ali Abdullah Saleh, said determining exactly who carried out the attack would be a challenge. The crime scene he toured yesterday was a "tangled mess of metal and wire," he said.

Officials believe two suicide bombers maneuvered a small boat packed with explosives next to the Cole and then detonated it.

The witnesses being questioned include the owner of a welding shop who did work for the suspects, Yemeni security officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity. The landlord of the apartment and a real estate agent who found it for the men also have been questioned.

The 12-year-old boy told authorities a bearded man wearing glasses gave him small change and told him to watch his car near the port on the day of the bombing, Saleh said Wednesday on the Arab satellite news station Al-Jazeera.

According to the boy, the man then went to sea in a small boat he carried atop the car and did not return, Saleh said. Yemeni police apparently were able to trace the man to the Aden apartment.

Yemeni security officials said yesterday the apartment yielded documents they believe originated in Hadhramaut, a region along the eastern border with Oman that is home to lawless tribes that have kidnapped foreigners for ransom.

A vehicle believed to have been used by the attackers also contained documents traced to Hadhramaut, the Yemeni officials said. They said investigators were sent to the region yesterday.

Yemeni officials said another team of investigators was going to neighboring Saudi Arabia yesterday. Many Yemenis from Hadhramaut have settled there.

There has been no claim of responsibility for the Cole bombing that is considered credible.

Saleh, in an interview with CNN yesterday, said "it could be" when asked if Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden - whom the United States accuses of masterminding the 1998 bombings of its embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people - was behind the attack on the USS Cole.

Freeh said it was far too early to speculate.

A Taliban official in Afghanistan said Arab militants who met with bin Laden in late September left the country just four days before the attack on the Cole. The official, who is close to the security apparatus of the Taliban religious militia that controls nearly all of Afghanistan, asked not to be identified for his own safety.

He said bin Laden - who lives in exile in Afghanistan - met with members of the Palestinian Hamas movement and the Egyptian Jihad. He gave military code names for the participants, but it wasn't possible to determine their identities.

A second meeting involving 10 Arabs who arrived via Moscow, held just after the bombing, discussed the possibility of organizing attacks on U.S. embassies around the world, particularly in the Middle East, the official said.

It was impossible to independently confirm the meetings took place or who might have participated.

Yesterday, the London-based newspaper Al Hayat published a statement by Egyptian militant leader Rifai Ahmed Taha citing the Cole explosion and calling for more attacks on U.S. interests.

Taha's al-Gamaa al-Islamiya, or Islamic Group, is blamed for a 1997 massacre of Western tourists in Luxor, Egypt. Taha now is believed to be in hiding in Afghanistan with bin Laden.

Bin Laden recruited Yemenis and other Arabs to fight Soviet troops in Afghanistan in the 1980s. After the 1989 Soviet withdrawal, many battle-hardened Yemenis returned home. Yemeni officials say they are questioning Afghan veterans.

Retired U.S. Gen. Anthony Zinni, the military commander in the region when the Pentagon contracted for refueling services at Aden in 1998, told a Senate committee hearing yesterday that he knew terrorists used Yemen as a transit route into Saudi Arabia but that there were no better alternatives. Navy ships had to refuel in the area while moving to and from the Persian Gulf, he said.

The Aden neighborhood that is home to the apartment at the center of the investigation is known as Buraika and overlooks a beautiful bay. Senior Yemeni government officials and military officers live there.

One neighbor pointed out the apartment, on the first floor of a small white house with an unfinished second story. Five police officers stood outside, behind a low wall around the front yard.

Seif Salim al Murousi, who lives nearby, said he remembered only that one tenant was bearded and he had occasionally seen them wearing traditional Yemeni dress, a brightly colored wrap similar to a sarong.