Top US officials on Friday urged Yemen to give its "full cooperation" in the USS Cole attack inquiry, as FBI agents prepared to interview suspects held in Yemen.
"We count on President (Ali Abdullah) Saleh's commitment of full cooperation as we move to the most critical aspects of this investigation," said US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Federal Bureau of Investigation director Louis Freeh in a joint statement.
US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher was unable to say whether the FBI had interviewed suspects and witnesses detained by the Yemeni authorities following the October 12 attack against the US destroyer at the Yemeni port of Aden, in which 17 US navy sailors died.
The blast occurred when a small boat pulled alongside the US destroyer at the Yemeni port of Aden and detonated.
"We know the Yemenis have interviewed a number of suspects. We need to do that as well. I don't know if the FBI has asked to see those people yet or not," Boucher said.
"The next critical phase will require the US and Yemeni personnel to work as partners in collecting information and participants in the interview process of witnesses who might have -- well, witnesses who have information on this criminal act of terrorism," he said.
According to a report in a leading US newspaper Friday, US intelligence agents have "hard evidence" that Saudi-born millionaire Osama bin Laden is behind the attack, which also left 38 US sailors injured.
USA Today reports that bin Laden financed the attack and sent one of his aides to supervise it. The daily cites anonymous sources to back up its assertion.
US officials however downplayed the report, and the FBI refused to confirm it.
"This story is overwritten. They are strong suspicions that people with links to Bin Laden are involved in this but the notion of hard evidence is at this point an overstatement," said an official who requesting anonymity.
"We're not confirming. It's too early at this stage," said Steven Berry of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
State Department spokesman Boucher said it was premature "to speculate on what the results of the investigation might be."
If investigators conclude that Bin Laden and his organization are behind the blast, Washington may take retaliatory action, as it did in 1998, following attacks on US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya which claimed 224 lives.
The United States subsequently bombed terrorist bases in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan.
But even when it identifies the perpetrator the United States might hesitate to strike back, for fear of influencing the November 7 presidential election or exacerbating recent violence in the Middle East, USA Today noted – WASHINGTON (AFP)
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