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Africa: Investigation Into Bombings Makes Progress

Prague, 19 August 1998 (RFE/RL) -- United States investigators, helped by their counterparts from Pakistan, Kenya and Tanzania, appear to be making significant progress in their search for the perpetrators of this month's twin terrorist bombings in East Africa.

On Tuesday, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents raided a Nairobi hotel where the bomb that targeted the U.S. embassy in that city was assembled.

According to the Kenyan newspaper the Daily Nation, the investigators were led to the hotel by Mohammed Saddiq Odeh, who was deported to Kenya from Pakistan in connection with the August 7 bombing.

The Nairobi explosion and a similar one which occurred almost simultaneously in the Tanzanian capital of Dar es Salaam, killed at least 257 people and injured thousands of others. Odeh, who is identified as a 34-year-old Palestinian engineer from Jordan, is reported to have told Pakistani investigators that he was in charge of preparing the Nairobi bomb.

According to an article in today's Washington Post, which quotes from notes taken by Pakistani intelligence officials, Odeh claims to be part of a terrorist network sponsored by wealthy Saudi businessman Osama bin Laden, who currently operates out of Afghanistan.

Odeh allegedly told Pakistani investigators that he was part of a seven-man team, including Egyptian and Lebanese nationals, paid by bin Laden to carry out the bombing. Odeh himself left Nairobi on August 6, after ensuring that everything was in place for the explosion, but was arrested the next day in Pakistan, carrying a false Yemeni passport, while attempting to reach neighboring Afghanistan.

Odeh has not repeated his full confession after being handed over to U.S. investigators. But he did point agents to the hotel where the bomb was put together, thereby acknowledging a role in the plot.

Today's New York Times adds more weight to the allegation that there is an Afghan connection to the bombings. The paper quotes senior Pakistani officials, who say they have arrested two more suspects fingered by Odeh, as they tried to cross into Afghanistan on the Pakistani side of the Khyber pass. The suspects have so far not been identified.

According to the Washington Post, Odeh told his Pakistani interrogators that his sponsor, Osama bin Laden, controls at least 4,000 militants from a number of Muslim countries. He also reportedly has a large arsenal of surface-to-air missiles, mortars, rockets and tanks stored all over the country, where he is being hosted the Taliban.

Bin Laden, who comes from a family of Saudi Arabian construction tycoons, is wanted by both Saudi Arabia and the United States for allegedly funding previous terrorist attacks.

Pakistan's Foreign Office on Tuesday vehemently denied media reports that the U.S. had asked Islamabad's permission for a military operation to capture bin Laden. Confirming the report is of course impossible, but Pakistan, which has been assisting the U.S. in its investigation, finds itself in a difficult predicament.

Islamabad is a close U.S ally, but it also maintains good relations with the Taliban militia, whom it officially recognizes as Afghanistan's rulers. Since bin Laden is a guest of the Taliban, who today vowed to "protect him at all costs", this leaves Pakistan with its hands tied. It is arresting bin Laden's associates within its own borders, but whether it will go further if the U.S. demands it remains to be seen.

The U.S., meanwhile, has evacuated most of its diplomatic personnel from Pakistan and encouraged its remaining ordinary citizens to do the same. U.S. embassies in several other countries are taking similar precautions.

Just today, the London-based Arabic-language daily al-Hayat reported that a group calling itself the Islamic International Front for Fighting Jews and Crusaders has issued new threats against the United States. The group, in a statement sent to the newspaper, said it would continue to strike out against U.S. interests until "America meets a black fate similar to what happened to the Soviet Union." Given Moscow's ever-deepening economic troubles, the threat takes on added weight.

The U.S. says it is determined to bring those responsible for the Kenyan and Tanzanian bombings to justice, and given the latest arrests, it may be on the road to achieving success. But it seems that after making a brief absence, the specter of world terrorism is back and unfortunately, it is not likely to end in Nairobi.