NEW YORK — Federal agents, moving quickly to take advantage of an astonishing break in their investigation of the World Trade Center bombing, Thursday arrested a suspect described as a devout Muslim and accused him of renting the van that carried a powerful explosive into the huge structure's underground parking garage.
Authorities struggling to sift clues from the shards and rubble of the trade center's shattered basement had feared that it might take weeks to pinpoint a suspect but Thursday's arrest came just six days after the bombing that killed five people, injured more than 1,000 and ranked among the worst terrorist acts in the nation's history.
Mohammed A. Salameh, 26, was seized without incident at a bus stop near a truck rental agency in Jersey City, N.J. Authorities said that he unaccountably used his own name to rent the yellow Ford Econoline now believed to have been the delivery vehicle for the trade center bombing.
A second person was arrested Thursday and charged with obstruction of justice, authorities said, but no details were given pending an arraignment scheduled for this morning.
After the van allegedly was obliterated in the huge explosion, Salameh reported the vehicle stolen to the rental agency and the police. He was arrested by agents posing as rental firm employees after he came to the agency twice to demand a refund of his deposit.
Authorities said that they consider the bombing a terrorist attack but otherwise had not established a motive. They said that they believe Salameh was affiliated with a mosque in Jersey City led by Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman, a cleric who has been seeking the overthrow of the Egyptian government and other secular regimes in the Middle East. The man convicted in the 1990 slaying of Rabbi Meir Kahane was also a follower of Abdul Rahman.
Authorities said that they also are seeking a number of other suspects in connection with the trade center bombing.
After the arrest, more than a dozen FBI agents carrying submachine guns raided a multifamily house in Jersey City and searched the back yards of other homes in the neighborhood.
Some witnesses said that five people were taken from the multifamily home by the agents.
The breakthrough in the case was first announced by the White House then confirmed by the Justice Department. Acting Atty. Gen. Stuart M. Gerson labeled the developments "a remarkable day in the history of the FBI."
President Clinton praised the hundreds of investigators who had been combing the blast site for clues and searching for possible terrorist links.
"I think that people should be very reassured by the incredibly rapid work. . . . " he said. "It was very impressive. All resources were put into this from the moment the explosion occurred, and I think they did a remarkable job."
Mohammed Magib, a spokesman for the Masjid El Salam Mosque, said he did not know the suspect.
"We have nothing to do with the bombing," he said. "We are not radicals. We are not fundamentalists. We are very peaceful people. This place has been singled out. It never ends."
He declined to say whether the FBI had visited the mosque, situated above a Chinese restaurant.
Authorities said the break in the case came when an FBI laboratory explosives expert sifting through debris of the van found in the decimated parking garage was able to pick out part of the vehicle's identification number. Using this with other evidence they declined to specify, they were able to trace the van to the Ryder truck rental company and then to the local outlet in Jersey City.
The trap was set for Salameh, who was in touch with the agency and was demanding return of his $400 deposit.
A telephone number Salameh listed as a contact number on the rental agreement also led to important evidence in the case, officials said. Investigators traced the number to an apartment in Jersey City where they found tools, a letter addressed to Salameh, electronic equipment that "indicated the presence in this apartment of a bombmaker," said James Fox, assistant FBI director in charge of New York office.
In addition, a dog trained to sniff out explosives "responded positively" to a closet in the apartment, he said.
Gerson called the arrest "a significant breakthrough" and said it was "an important step in solving a violent and cowardly act that has shocked our nation."
"A large first step has been taken," said Fox.
The other person arrested in the investigation wa not immediately linked to the bombing. Authorities said that the man, a relative of the radical convicted in the Kahane slaying, was arrested for assault after he allegedly interfered with officers conducting a search of a Brooklyn apartment linked to fundamentalists.
Little information was released about Salameh. However, sources said he was known to the FBI before the bombing occurred. He was among the 185,000 individuals listed in the FBI's computerized terrorism information system.