SAN'A, Yemen – A security court on Wednesday opened the first trial in the bombing of the USS Cole (search), charging six Yemenis in the planning of the October 2000 attack and saying they belonged to Usama bin Laden's terrorist network.
Seventeen American sailors were killed when two suicide bombers in an explosives-laden boat rammed the USS Cole as it refueled in the southern Yemeni port city of Aden. The bombing was blamed on Al Qaeda (search).
Among the six charged in San'a Wednesday was accused mastermind Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri (search), who is in U.S. custody, but it was unclear where. The other five were in court Wednesday.
Al-Nashiri was accused of planning and funding the attack and training the cell members who carried it out.
The United States announced al-Nashiri's arrest in November, 2002, saying he had been detained in an undisclosed country and transferred to American custody. Western diplomats later identified the country as the United Arab Emirates, and Emirates officials confirmed that in December, 2002.
U.S. officials believe the Saudi-born al-Nashiri is a close associate of bin Laden. In addition to the Cole attack, he is suspected of helping direct the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. U.S. officials say al-Nashiri gave telephone orders to the Cole bombers from the Emirates.
An official at the U.S. Embassy in Yemen declined to comment on the trial and did not disclose al-Nashiri's whereabouts nor say whether he would be handed over to Yemeni authorities.
In a trial that had been expected to start but delayed many times, Judge Najib al-Qaderi read a list of charges that included forming an armed gang to carry out criminal acts against the interests of the state; belonging to Al Qaeda; resisting authorities and forging documents.
The defendants present refused to plead and asked for lawyers. The judge scheduled a new hearing July 14, saying lawyers should be appointed in the meantime for Jamal al-Badawi, Maamoun Msouh, Fahid al-Qasa, Ali Mohamed Saleh and Mourad al-Sirouri.
Under Yemen's penal code, the accused can be sentenced to death or prison terms ranging from four to 15 years. However, judicial officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said death sentences were unlikely because the six men were not the perpetrators of the attack.
The United States had reportedly resisted an early trial, pressing Yemeni officials to thoroughly investigate the case. Yemen is holding other Cole suspects. It was not clear when other trials would be held.
Judge al-Qaderi said during Wednesday's session that the Cole bombers trained for and planned the attack for three years. He named the two suicide bombers for the first time, Yemenis Ibrahim al-Thawr and Abdullah al-Misawa. He said some members of the cell had met in Afghanistan, which had been an Al Qaeda stronghold before the war on terror sparked by the Sept. 11 2001, attacks on the United States.
Al-Qaderi also said a court statement would be published in local newspapers summoning al-Nashiri to appear. Yemeni officials have said they had asked that U.S. authorities hand al-Nashiri over.
U.S. diplomats attended the one-hour session.
Dozens of police officers and soldiers cordoned off the area immediately around the court's five-story building in central San'a while others patrolled nearby streets and watched from roofs of adjacent buildings.
In March, Yemeni forces recaptured 10 militants suspected of involvement in the Cole bombing following their escape from prison last year.
Yemen, bin Laden's ancestral homeland and a hotbed of Al Qaeda sympathizers, had long tolerated Muslim extremists, but cracked down on such groups following the Sept. 11 attacks. It has allowed American forces to train Yemeni troops to combat terrorists.