N.Y. Bomb Suspect: View From West Bank

Relative says Salameh was `never one of those fanatics'

WHEN Amr Abu Bakr, the high school administrator in this scruffy West Bank village, first heard on his radio that the World Trade Center in New York had been bombed, he scarcely imagined that 10 days later he would be summoned for questioning about the attack.

But Mr. Abu Bakr is an uncle of Mohammed Salameh, the man the FBI says rented the truck that carried a bomb into the Trade Center's underground parking garage on Feb. 26. And Mr. Salameh was born here, so the Israeli authorities are also interested in him.

Abu Bakr still cannot believe his nephew had anything to do with the bombing, which US law enforcement officials may have linked to an Islamic extremist group. "He was a very modest young man, very nice, well-liked by everybody," Abu Bakr recalled as he sat in his plainly furnished living room yesterday. "He was never one of those fanatics."

Salameh was born here in his grandmother's house in 1967, a few months after Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan in the six-day, Arab-Israeli war, Abu Bakr says. While still an infant, his mother took him to Jordan, where her husband, a Jordanian soldier, was stationed.

Today, Salameh's grandmother's house no longer stands. It was demolished to make way for the Israeli-built Trans-Samarian highway, which cuts through Bidya. The village's 8,000 inhabitants - most of them members of the Salameh clan - make their living from the olive and almond harvests, and from jobs in Israel, just five miles away.

OUTSIDE Abu Bakr's house yesterday, roosters crowed and two small millstones, used to grind corn by hand, sat by the well. The rural calm, broken only by the muezzin's call to afternoon prayer, could not have been farther from downtown Manhattan.

Abu Bakr said he last saw Salameh in 1986, on a visit to Zarka in Jordan, where the family has lived for the last 25 years. He described a simple Palestinian refugee youth: "not a high achiever in school, below average in fact, but a straight person, not the kind to deviate to any kind of extremism."

After school, Salameh entered university in Jordan, on a scholarship offered to the children of all Jordanian military personnel. "But with his low grades," Abu Bakr explained, "he could only get into the faculty of sharia," Islamic law.

In 1988, Salameh, the eldest of 11 children, entered the US, Abu Bakr said, to get a job that would help his father raise his large family. Every two months or so he would send back between $150 and $250, according to Abu Bakr, to supplement his father's pension.

Other relatives who knew Salameh when he was growing up in Jordan share Abu Bakr's disbelief at the young man's alleged role in the World Trade Center bombing. His grandmother, 80-year-old Amneh Mahmoud Rawdeh, bedridden and wrapped in a scarf and cardigan against the spring chill, remembers him kissing her hand the last time she saw him.

"I have no idea what has happened to Mohammed," she said on Sunday. "When I heard the news [of his arrest], my body went numb."

Salameh's family appears to have been quite typical of Palestinian life, "normal, conservative Muslims," in Abu Bakr's words.

One uncle, whose portrait in Israeli prison uniform hangs on Abu Bakr's wall, was jailed in 1970 for 17 years for being a member of a Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) guerrilla squad, but since then none of the family has been in any kind of trouble.

Abu Bakr is afraid for what people in the US will think of his family, now that his nephew has been arrested.

"When I heard about the bombing, I felt bad about it," he said. "It's wrong, and I thought it was a very remote idea that any of my kinfolk might do anything like this."

"Maybe now Americans are mad because a Palestinian participated in the bombing," he added.

"But they should understand that this sort of thing does not represent the Palestinian people."

[Meanwhile, Reuters reports that Jordanian officials said yesterday there were no indications that any more of its citizens were implicated in the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York.

"There are no indications there is anyone else," said Information Minister Mahmoud al-Sharif.

He added that Jordan was continuing its own investigation of Salameh, the key suspect in the attack that killed five people and injured more than 1,000. Salemeh was believed to be living in the US illegally after going there on a tourist visa six years ago.

Yesterday Iran, reacting to news reports that Islamic fundamentalists may be behind the bombing, accused Israel of playing a role and said the Jewish state and the United States were using the blast to whip up a frenzy against Islamic fundamentalism.

"If a Jordanian can possibly be accused of a blast in the United States they immediately say he is a Muslim - of the fundamentalist type," Iranian radio said.

"Every fundamentalist, the argument goes, is linked to Iran, therefore Iran is behind the New York blast." the Iranian radio report added.

The US State Department branded Iran the world's "most dangerous state sponsor of terrorism" Friday, but did not specifically link it to the New York explosion.

US investigations continued to center on New York area Arab Muslims. Officials expect more arrests as they widen a probe into an Islamic fundamentalist group in Jersey City, N.J.]

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