Kenyans looking for terrorists in hotel bombing

Investigations are continuing here to find those responsible for the New Year's Eve bomb blast that wrecked half of the historic Norfolk Hotel and caused numerous casualties.

Some suggest the bombing was the work of terrorists from outside Kenya seeking to punish this country for its relative tolerance of Israelis and its past crackdowns on suspected terrorists.

Kenya police reportedly have been searching for a man with a Maltese passport who may already have left the country. The man is believed to have reserved a bedroom above the hotel's dining room, a bedroom that has been pinpointed as the source of the explosion.

Suspicion also has been directed toward the militant Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. (The PFLP is a rival to the Palestine Liberation Organization, which has denied responsibility through its branch in Nairobi.) The PFLP has links with the Baader-Meinhof terror organization in West Germany, and is based in Beirut.

One line of reasoning here is that the outrage may have been in revenge for the arrest in Nairobi of three Palestinians and two West Germans who had attempted in 1976 to blow up an El Al (Israeli) airliner at Nairobi airport. They were deported to Israel. The two West Germans were released recently, but they have denied any connection with the Nairobi bomb. At the time, the terrorists threatened reprisals against Kenya.

The Norfolk Hotel may have been chosen because it is owned by a local Jewish firm, Block Hotels, but Jack Block, the managing director, said members of his family have never been threatened.

Among the throng of international tourists in the hotel at the time of the explosion were Americans, Kenyans, Britons, Germans, Italians, Belgians, and a Frenchman.

Kenya, which is heavily dependent on tourism, has been deeply concerned about the explosion and the possibility of further terrorism. All tourist hotels in Kenya have been placed under police guard, and visitors are intensively searched.

Other theories are being bandied around. Was it a deliberate strike to destabilize stable Kenya by an unknown underground group -- possibly aimed at popular President Daniel arap Moi by his enemies? But no such group is known, and it is a complicated and expensive business to hire a mercenary bomber. Bomb experts in Nairobi, including one American and two sent from Britain, say it was a highly sophisticated time bomb unlikely to have been made in Kenya.

The last bomb outrage in Kenya was five years ago when a bus in Nairobi was blown up, killing 25 people. No culprit was found, and the bombing is still a mystery.

Many here still remember the 1976 Entebbe, Uganda, raid by Israeli commandos to release 100 hostages hijacked by Palestinians in an Air France plane. At the time, Kenya was criticized in the Arab world for its part in refueling the Israeli planes on their way back to Israel with the hostages. And Kenya is still not popular with the Arabs for allowing Israeli engineers, building contractors, and other businessmen to operate here.

The Norfolk Hotel has been a landmark in Nairobi for 68 years, since the days when the city was merely a construction center on the Uganda railway the British were building from the Kenya Indian Ocean port of Mombasa to Kampala, Uganda.

In the old colonial days, it was the haunt of rich settlers, some of whom rode in for dinner, hitching their horses to the rail outside the terrace. Opposite the hotel in those days was a swamp.

The Norfolk attracted many big-game hunters and world travelers. Among famous Americans who stayed there was Theodore Roosevelt on a game hunt and writers Ernest Hemingway, Robert Ruark, and Negley Farson.

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