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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tanker Fire Put Out, Investigations Start

AL MUKALLA, Yemen -- A fire that raged for hours aboard a French oil tanker has been put out, but still unanswered is the question of whether the tanker was attacked by terrorists.

The Yemeni government said Sunday's blaze was an accident caused by an oil leak, but the ship's owner said it was a "deliberate act." French officials said it was still too early to rule out terrorism.

"The fire has been extinguished. We believe the explosion happened from within the tanker, but investigations are still under way," a Yemeni official said Monday on condition of anonymity.

Yemeni Prime Minister Abdul-Kader Bajammal formed a special committee to investigate the blast. The Yemeni official said Yemeni and French investigators would cooperate in the probe.

In Paris on Monday, the anti-terrorism section of the prosecutor's office opened a preliminary investigation, judicial sources said, adding that agents from France's counterterrorism service will head to Yemen to investigate.

France's foreign minister said Monday that the possibility that the fire was deliberate has not been ruled out.

"Nothing has been excluded," Dominique de Villepin told RTL radio.

The French foreign ministry said it did not have "enough elements to allow us to formulate a ... hypothesis which would point to a terrorist attack."

According to Yemeni officials, the captain of the Limburg said the fire started on his tanker and was followed by an explosion while crewmen tried to get the blaze under control.

In France, officials with Euronav, the company that owns the Limburg, said their understanding was that the captain saw a small fishing boat pulling up to the tanker before the blast at 9:15 a.m. local time. The officials speculated the fishing boat could not have caused such a huge blast unless it was carrying explosives.

There were also reports the explosion occurred as a pilot boat was preparing to escort the tanker into Mina al-Dabah, its destination.

"We believe it was a deliberate act. It was not an accident," said Euronav director Jacques Moizan.

In 2000, a small boat laden with explosives rammed the USS Cole as it refueled at another Yemeni port, Aden, setting off a blast that killed 17 U.S. sailors. That attack was blamed on Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network.

Yemen has been eager to emphasize its commitment to the U.S.-led war on terror and shake off its reputation as a hotbed of extremism -- it is believed to have been a longtime base for suspected al-Qaida members and is the bin Laden family's ancestral home.

The Bahrain-based Maritime Liaison Office, which coordinates communication between the U.S. Navy and the commercial shipping community in the Gulf and Arabian Sea, issued an advisory in September warning ships of the possibility al-Qaida was planning attacks on oil tankers.

The Malaysian firm Petronas said in a statement Monday that it had chartered the Limburg. In Malaysia on Monday, a police official said that officials there did not believe the Limburg fire was a terrorist attack on Malaysia -- a largely Muslim country that has cracked down on Islamic militants and terror suspects.