The U.S. Military Sealift Command has tendered for two oil tankers to take 235,000 barrels of marine diesel fuel from Kuwait to Diego Garcia, site of a U.S. Air Force base in the Indian Ocean, and from South Korea to Japan, shipbrokers said yesterday. It has also booked another oil tanker, the Cypriot-flagged tanker Presnya, to carry 28,000 tonnes of aviation fuel from Greece to southern Spain, brokers in Oslo and London told Reuters.

"The marine diesel tenders close in five minutes, and they're for loading dates between the 25th and 27th of September," said one Oslo broker. "The jet booking is for September 15," he added. Spain said on Thursday it would support retaliatory strikes for the attack on the New York World Trade Center and the Pentagon and would make its air bases available if asked by its NATO allies.

"If that is the contribution that is required from us, I have no doubts that that (use of the Spanish bases) will be the case," said Pio Cabanillas, who ranks as a cabinet minister. The bases were used by the U.S. for air operations during the Gulf War and Balkans crisis.

Shipping sources said that the aviation fuel would be discharged in Spain about five days after loading in Greece, and the high price paid to secure the tanker at such short notice, $625,000, suggested it was not a routine cargo.

Clifford Beal, editor of Jane's Defence Weekly, cautioned against interpreting the shipments as signs of imminent retaliation by the U.S. "What you're seeing is the next logical step," he said. "They're doing the groundwork for all possible options."