SAN’A, Yemen (AP) – A security court charged six alleged al-Qaida members Wednesday with plotting the attack on the USS Cole, opening the first trial in the suicide bombing that killed 17 American sailors. Among the defendants is reputed mastermind Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri.

Police and soldiers cordoned off the security court in San’a, and marksmen watched from rooftops, as five of the defendants were brought in to hear the judge read their indictment. Al-Nashiri, the sixth defendant, is in U.S. custody.

The attack occurred in October 2000 when two suicide bombers brought a small boat alongside the destroyer as it refueled in Aden harbor. The bombers detonated explosives stashed on the boat, killing themselves and 17 sailors, and blasting a huge hole in the ship’s hull.

The United States announced al-Nashiri’s arrest in 2002. He was detained in the United Arab Emirates and transferred to American custody. U.S. officials believe the Saudi-born al-Nashiri is a close associate of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.

In addition to the Cole attack, he is suspected of helping direct the deadly 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

A diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in San’a refused to comment on the trial or disclose al-Nashiri’s whereabouts. Nor would he say whether the accused would be handed over to the Yemeni authorities. U.S. diplomats attended the hearing.

The United States reportedly pressed Yemen to delay the trial until all facets of the case had been thoroughly investigated. Journalists in San’a often heard the trial was about to begin, and then found it had been postponed.

Judge Najib al-Qaderi said the court would publish a statement in local newspapers summoning al-Nashiri to appear. Yemeni officials have said they have asked the United States to hand him over.

The five defendants, all Yemenis, refused to plead and asked the judge to grant them access to lawyers.

Al-Qaderi, who approved their request, said they were charged with belonging to the al-Qaida terror network, forming an armed gang with the purpose of carrying out crimes against the state, resisting the authorities and forging documents.

The judge said the attack was planned over three years. He named the two suicide bombers for the first time, Ibrahim al-Thawr and Abdullah al-Misawa, both Yemenis. He said some members of the cell had met in Afghanistan, which was an al-Qaida stronghold before the U.S.-led invasion of that country after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.

If convicted, the defendants could be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison, or to death – though judicial officials said death sentences were unlikely because the defendants were not the actual bombers.

The five accused in court were Jamal al-Badawi, Maamoun Msouh, Fahd al-Qasa, Ali Mohamed Saleh and Murad al-Sirouri.

Al-Badawi appeared in court with his leg in a cast and was using a crutch. He was injured in a clash with the authorities in March after he escaped from prison with nine other Cole suspects last year.

His lawyer, Mohammed Naji Allaw, told The Associated Press that the state had violated the rights of the accused.

“All the procedures taken against them were illegal,” Allaw said, adding Yemeni law provides for detention without charge for up to 45 days.

“My clients were held for almost four years and I was not allowed to attend any of the interrogations – in violation of the law,” he said.

The judge adjourned the trial until July 14.

Yemen, the home of bin Laden’s ancestors, had long tolerated Muslim extremists. But after the Sept. 11 attacks, its government cracked down on militant groups and aligned itself with the U.S.-led war on terror. It has received U.S. military aid, such as anti-terror training for its soldiers.

AP-ES-07-07-04 1641EDT

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