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Police Question 12 in Kenya Bombing - Somali Group Linked to al Qaeda Among Top Suspects, U.S. Official Says (WASHINGTON POST) MOMBASA, Kenya 11/30/02 Page A20)Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A55375-2002Nov29.html WASHINGTON POST WASHINGTON POST Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
MOMBASA, Kenya, Nov. 29 -- Kenyan police questioned a dozen suspects today in connection with Thursday´s twin attacks on Israeli targets around this seaside city, seeking to establish who was responsible for the apparently coordinated attacks.

U.S. sources here said not enough evidence had been gathered to apportion blame for the suicide bombing of the Paradise Hotel near Mombasa -- which killed 16 people, including the bombers, and injured 40 -- or the unsuccessful attempt to bring down an Israeli airliner with two shoulder-fired missiles. But as Kenyan and Israeli officials continued to suggest that the attacks were the work of Osama bin Laden´s al Qaeda organization, a senior administration official in Washington said a Somali group with links to al Qaeda ranked high on the list of suspects.

Al-Ittihad al-Islamiya, whose links to al Qaeda date to the early 1990s, was placed on the U.S. government´s list of terrorist groups shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Last year, the Treasury Department said an Islamic banking organization that handled al Qaeda funds employed al-Ittihad members in Somalia and funneled money to the organization.

While cautioning that there is no hard evidence yet pointing to the perpetrators of Thursday´s bombing, the U.S. official said al Qaeda has "highlighted and saluted" al-Ittihad and "its worldview mirrors al Qaeda´s in general."

Police today uncovered another body in the charred ruins of the Paradise Hotel on the Indian Ocean beachfront, raising the number of dead there to 10 Kenyans, three Israelis and the three unidentified bombers, who crashed a four-wheel-drive vehicle laden with explosives into the hotel lobby at 8:30 a.m. Thursday -- five minutes after two antiaircraft missiles narrowly missed an Israeli Boeing 757 as it took off from Mombasa´s airport bound for Tel Aviv.

A previously unknown Palestinian group -- the Government of Universal Palestine in Exile, the Army of Palestine -- claimed responsibility for the attacks. But involvement by bin Laden and al Qaeda, blamed for the bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998, was widely suggested today.

Although Israeli authorities said they had no solid evidence linking al Qaeda to the attacks, one senior official said: "Because of the pattern, it could be al Qaeda. If so, it´s the first time Israel has been a target."

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon warned Thursday that "our long arm will catch the attackers and those who dispatch him," but Israeli officials said today that their security agencies do not plan to extend their investigations of al Qaeda beyond the Kenyan attacks.

"We will be happy to cooperate with America, but I don´t think we want an all-out war with al Qaeda," the senior Israeli official said. "We have enough on our plates."

Israeli army radio, citing unspecified Arab media, identified one of the suspects in the Kenya attacks as Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah; a man by that name has been indicted in the United States for the 1998 embassy bombings. However, Kenyan police and U.S. sources said they were unaware of the information.

A team of Israeli forensic experts arrived in Mombasa today to help Kenyan police reconstruct the bombers´ vehicle, a green Mitsubishi Pajero. Police recovered a license plate, which could help determine the identities of the bombers, Kenyan Police Commissioner Philemon Abongo said.

Police also said investigators found a launcher for an SA-7 Strela, a Soviet-designed shoulder-fired antiaircraft missile, and two missile casings in the Changamwe area of Mombasa, about a mile from Moi International Airport.

The two missiles fired at the Arkia Israeli Airlines plane missed their target, and Israeli media reports speculated today that the airliner may have used decoy flares similar to those employed by combat aircraft to divert attacks. Some passengers on the plane reported hearing a small explosion or feeling a small jolt near the plane at the time of the attack.

The Israeli air force commander, Maj. Gen. Dan Halutz, told reporters that such countermeasures are available but are "not installed on most commercial aircraft, only on select ones."

Israeli media also reported that one of the two Boeing 757-300 planes in the Arkia fleet was used by Sharon last spring on his state visit to Washington. Officials declined to say whether the plane involved in Thursday´s attack was the one Sharon used.

Few details were available about the 12 people questioned by police. Two were described as a husband and wife -- one of whom carried an American passport -- who checked out of the Le Soleil Beach Club 90 minutes after the bombing, said Ben Wafula, the manager of the hotel. But U.S. and Israeli intelligence sources said the two were not suspects and would be released soon.

The others were identified only as six Somalis and four Pakistanis, according to news services.

"Immediately after the incident we detained those for interrogation, and I feel they could give us useful information," said Abongo, the police commissioner, who said that some were brought in for questioning because they didn´t have identification papers and were behaving suspiciously.

In Australia, the government said today that it had received intelligence warnings two weeks ago of a threat in Mombasa and had urged its nationals then not to go there, news services reported. Ninety Australians were among the 185 people killed on Oct. 12 on the Indonesian island of Bali in bombings blamed on Islamic extremists.

"This advice was based on intelligence information that warned of possible terrorist attacks against Western interests in Mombasa," Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said in a statement. "Australia had no specific information about the timing, location or method of the possible attacks."

Sources in this predominantly Muslim resort city said they were also investigating an Islamic school called Majis M. Islamya, where Africans from Kenya and neighboring countries were being converted to Islam and were being offered trips to the Middle East. Officials at the school, about a mile from the Paradise Hotel, refused to comment.

Four years after the embassy bombings, Thursday´s attacks revived fears that East Africa remains fertile ground for Islamic militants seeking willing accomplices and easy targets. With its deep poverty and porous borders, some intelligence officials say, the region could be a major blind spot in the U.S.-led war on terrorism. As a result of such concerns, the United States has positioned thousands of troops along the coast of Kenya and set up an anti-terrorist task force in Djibouti, 1,200 miles north in the Horn of Africa.

Thursday´s attacks also rekindled resentment among many here that, as Kenya becomes embroiled in struggles among outside forces, Kenyans are the ones suffering the consequences.

At Mombasa´s Pandya Memorial Hospital, Miriam Mkumbi sat on the bare floor beside her sister Asher, who was badly cut by flying glass in the hotel bombing, and wondered aloud why she and other Kenyan Muslims had to be drawn into a fight that was not theirs.

"It´s very hurtful that the relations between the Israelis and the Palestinians have to hurt all Muslims," she said. "We are Kenyans. We don´t even care about those things, but they come and do this to us."

Across the city, Ale Benzair, 20, said he was upset that the bombers did not kill as many Israelis as they intended and that most of the dead were Kenyans. "People lost their lives, Africans lost their lives, and I don´t think that is right," Benzair said. "But some people love Osama because they believe in what he is saying that what is happening in Israel is wrong."

About 235 Israelis vacationing in the seaside resorts that dot the beaches around Mombasa were taken home today in military planes, along with a seriously injured Kenyan woman who was airlifted to Israel for surgery.

At the same time, Israeli doctors and aid workers were flown in with blood and medical supplies -- the same team that came to Nairobi after the 1998 embassy bombing. "Unfortunately, we have a lot of experience when it comes to this," said Gilad Millo, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, who was at the scene of the bombing. "And it does not look like it is going away."

As Israeli flags were taken down and crime-scene tape with Hebrew lettering was erected around the charred ruin that had been the Paradise Hotel, more details emerged about Thursday´s events.

The three men in the car appeared to be of Arab descent and were seen driving up and down the unpaved road in front of the hotel about 8:15 a.m., said Nicholas Maweu, a manager at the Calipso Hotel, across the road. They sat about 100 yards from the hotel for a few minutes, he said, and then sped toward the entry gate.

Justin Mundu, 57, was the security guard in the booth at the gate when the sport-utility vehicle came crashing through. "It happened so fast," Mundu said. "I heard this bang. Then I heard a loud bang, and then dust and smoke and people screaming. They came right through the gate."

Mundu said hotel regulations required that every visitor, even the hotel´s owner, sign in at the gate and that he had been warned not to let Arab-looking men in at all. The bombers, he said, never stopped asked to ask permission.

Pincus reported from Washington. Correspondent Molly Moore in Jerusalem contributed to this report. (© 2002 The Washington Post Company 11/30/02)

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