Argentine Bombing - a Cold Trail

Despite pressure to crack July's attack on a Jewish center, the case remains a mystery

FOUR months after the bombing of the Jewish community center here, which claimed more than 85 lives and wounded 350, the investigation has hit an impasse over three mystery men.

Federal Judge Juan Jose Galeano is in charge of finding those responsible for the worst terrorist attack in Argentine history and the country's second unsolved bombing in two years. He has worked tirelessly to nail down evidence to prove his belief that Iran - using the Lebanon-based Shiite Muslim militia Hizbullah, which wields terrorism against Israel - is behind the July 18 strike.

He has reason to think the explosion has significance beyond Argentina. The bombing came within a month of an attack on the Israeli Embassy in London and the downing of a Panamanian plane with a dozen Jewish businessmen on it. The attacks are all unsolved.

Many suspect that Argentina, home to the largest Jewish population in Latin America - 300,000 - and to more than 500,000 Arabs, provided an easy target because of its loose security. Government officials hope that solving this case might deter a third bombing.

But each lead Judge Galeano overturns seems to trail off to a dead end, leaving him only three straws to grasp:

* Carlos Telleldin, the petty criminal who sold the van that destroyed the Jewish center on July 18, is the investigation's key, Galeano says. But Mr. Telleldin's lawyer argues that his client was caught up in the plot by accident.

* Manouchehr Motamer, an Iranian defector, has been in hiding since an Argentine Supreme Court judge - in the worst setback for Galeano's case - ruled there was insufficient evidence to detain him.

* Brazilian Wilson Roberto dos Santos, one of only two suspects jailed out of an original 20, has only recently been identified as a witness. He is being detained indefinitely while Galeano searches for his connection to the attack.

The heat is on

Galeano is under a lot of pressure. Each Monday, several hundred supporters and relatives of the bombing victims congregate in front of his courthouse office carrying placards asking: ``How Long?'' in reference to the unsolved bombings of the Israeli Embassy in 1992, which killed 29, and the Argentina Israeli Mutual Association (AMIA) building this year.

Argentine and AMIA officials say they are concerned that a third attack could come at any time. In the past several months, the local press has reported the high potential for terrorist activity in the 12,000-strong Arab community along Argentina's borders with Brazil and Paraguay.

Criticism of Galeano's methods of investigation extends beyond victims' relatives. ``The police didn't do the minimal amount of work that is needed to be done,'' says Joe Goldman, a United States reporter who worked with a team of seven Argentine journalists on a soon-to-be released book about the bombing.

Mr. Goldman claims that while his team searched four square blocks and 43 rooftops around the AMIA building, the police covered only one block and four rooftops.

``We made many errors in the Israeli Embassy case,'' Galeano admitted in a recent interview. ``We are being very careful not to repeat them.''

Galeano is known for an earnest, no-nonsense style. For this case, he has taken a course on Islamic fundamentalism and consulted an expert on Muslim surnames.

And Galeano is convinced that he will find the guilty. He says he has taken 400 statements, amassed 6,000 pages of testimony, and found three major new witnesses. The witnesses have not been named in court documents, the first example of witness protection in Argentine history.

The emergence of Mr. Dos Santos is Galeano's most promising lead right now. According to a recent article in the Brazilian newsmagazine Isto E, Dos Santos attempted to warn both the Argentine and Israeli consulates in Sao Paulo, Brazil, last February that a Jewish building in Buenos Aires would be bombed.

But ``they treated me as if I were a mad man,'' he told a reporter.

In his recent testimony to Argentine authorities, Dos Santos said the information came from his girlfriend, an Iranian woman named Nasrin Mokhtari, whom he met in Buenos Aires.

Ms. Mokhtari introduced him to a businessman who Argentine police believe was a Palestinian militant linked to Hizbullah or ``Party of God.'' She later told him she belonged to a group that had bombed the Israeli Embassy and was planning another Argentine attack.

Eamon Mullen, a federal prosecutor working with Galeano, says Dos Santos is a credible witness. ``His story is very coherent and can be easily confirmed.''

Yet despite the new lead, many observers here assume the bombers will never be known. ``The Argentine investigative system isn't built to sustain a two-to-three-year investigation,'' says a senior US official. ``It's hard to keep it going if they don't have much to work with.''

Case's cornerstone

In the meantime, Telleldin's attorney, Daniel Carral, has appealed to a San Martin, Argentina, court to assume the case, on the grounds that the charges of selling a stolen car and falsifying documents that Telleldin is being held on relate to crimes in that area. The court has ruled in his favor, and the question could now go to the nation's Supreme Court.

Galeano says he is sure Telleldin is covering for someone. ``Eighty percent of what he's told us has been proved to be lies,'' he says.

``If the court makes a political decision, I'll lose,'' Mr. Carral says. ``But if they consider the case on judicial merits, I'll win.'' And if Carral wins, Galeano will lose his chance of revealing the local support that he says played a major role in the bombing.

Many political observers here are convinced that local neo-Nazis and former hit squad agents from the ``dirty war'' of the 1970s against suspected leftists may have aided the bombers. Israeli diplomats claim the attack was professionally prepared, down to the choice of the shoddily built center, which was easy to collapse.

Despite those who say Galeano has little chance of solving this bombing, the judge says he will not give up. ``I owe the Argentine community a response,'' he says. ``Terrorism has been a problem for England, France, and the United States, and now it's a problem for Argentina.''

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