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Sunday March 25 2001 Sneak Attack BY ROMESH RATNESAR The 300 men and women aboard the USS Cole had been at sea for two uneventful months when their vessel arrived in the Yemen harbor of Aden last Thursday Unrest in the region and the Coles upcoming six-month mission with the Navys Fifth Fleet in the Persian Gulf where it would enforce the international oil embargo against Iraq had upgraded the ships Threatcon to bravo the Navys second-highest state of alert So as the Cole steamed into Aden harbor just before noon maneuvering close to an offshore mooring station where it would refuel crew members were on deck armed and at attention But they missed the threat Several small boats approached to assist in attaching the Coles thick 5-in lines to fixed buoys At 1215 a small harbor boat mingling among the moorers pulled alongside Two men stood upright and the boat exploded The blast tore a 40-ft by 40-ft hole in the port side of the Cole shoving one of the ships decks upward and destroying an engine room and an adjoining mess area Sailors not maimed by the explosion and flying shrapnel had only an instant to scramble to safety before water rushed into the gaping hole and engulfed them The attack killed 17 sailors and injured 38 more As the Cole a 1 billion destroyer armed with an assortment of high-caliber machine guns surface-to-air missiles and advanced radar equipment listed sickeningly to port crew members worked furiously to keep it afloat On Friday the Navy said the Cole would be repaired to seaworthiness and then towed home The attack came within hours of the lynching of two Israeli soldiers in Ramallah and the message it seemed to carry--that America might face a reckoning of its own for the collapse of Middle East peace--echoed nearly as loudly as the blast itself On Thursday President Clinton
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