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Bombay Bombings Leave Cloud of Fears, Suspicions : India: Embittered Muslim, family are tied to deadly blasts. But police suggest wider conspiracy was at work.

April 03, 1993|BOB DROGIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BOMBAY, India — At the height of the January riots here, when anti-Muslim mobs butchered and burned more than 750 people and nine days of anarchy reigned in India's most cosmopolitan city, Yakub Abdul Razak Memon stood in the smoldering shell of his own small shop and surveyed the horrors outside.

He was 28, plump, with short black hair and a thick mustache. A licensed accountant, Memon used the shop for his 200 or so clients, as well as to help his five brothers' businesses: a small travel agency, a mutton exporting company and, according to police, occasional gold and silver smuggling.

"He was very bitter," said Prabhat Sharan, a local reporter who met Memon by chance that awful day. "But he said, 'I don't blame the people who do this. I blame the politicians who have poisoned their minds.' "

Today, Indian authorities blame Memon and his family, who are said to have left the country, for coordinating one of the bloodiest, most ambitious terrorist attacks ever--10 powerful car and suitcase bombs that exploded in a synchronized slaughter on March 12, killing at least 317 people and injuring 1,400 others.

For 2 1/2 terrifying hours on Black Friday, as it is now called, blasts rocked the city from south to north.

The first car bomb gutted a garage under the gleaming new Bombay Stock Exchange tower, as much a symbol of India's financial capital as the World Trade Center is in New York. Left in the rubble were dozens of bodies, severed limbs and mangled vehicles.

In quick succession, cars packed with plastic explosives blew up next to the Air India headquarters, beside busy downtown bus stops, outside a crowded movie theater and at a gas station near a right-wing Hindu political party office. Suitcase bombs went off inside three luxury hotels. Flames lighted the sky; panic filled the streets.

But it is now clear that the Bombay bombers were planning far worse. "At least 200 or 300 bombs was their intention," A. S. Samra, Bombay's police commissioner, said in an interview.

They surely had the means. Shortly after the bombing, police found three parked motor scooters packed with RDX, a putty-like high explosive, and simple, acid-activated, pencil-sized detonators that apparently malfunctioned.

A week later, they recovered a handcart in the gold market with a dozen AK-56 assault rifles (a lighter version of the famed AK-47), plus thousands of rounds of ammunition, almost 200 Austrian-made hand grenades and, most important of all, 600 finger-sized detonators.

A few days later, police hit a jackpot: Gunnysacks packed with more than 2,800 pounds of RDX, plus plastic bags of ammonium nitrate, a compound that can be used in explosives, were seized in a half-built house south of Bombay. A raid the next day netted more detonators, guns and grenades.

On Friday, police found another 2.3 tons of explosives hidden in a creek north of Bombay.

"With this haul, we think we have all the explosives landed during the last two months," Samra said. But he cautioned that hundreds of weapons are still unaccounted for. "There is no call for optimism yet," he said.

Visiting American experts are trying to trace the source of the explosives, as well as serial numbers on the guns. But it won't be easy. Most of the rifle markings were removed. And RDX is widely available; the CIA supplied tons of it to guerrillas fighting Soviet troops in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Police have arrested at least 44 people. But all are bit players, including five local hoodlums who said they were paid to drive the explosive-packed cars. Hundreds of others have been hauled from their homes, detained and interrogated.

So far, the hardest evidence is against the Memons. A locally made maroon van was found the night of the bombings with seven AK-56s and four grenades in the rear. The license plate was traced to Yakub Memon's wife, Rahin.

And when harried police searched the Memons' three apartments in a dingy seven-story building in Mahim, a north Bombay quarter known as a haven for Muslim smugglers, they say they found the ignition key to one of the explosive-packed scooters.

"They masterminded the operation here," said M. N. Singh, a deputy police commissioner who heads the investigation. "But they are just the hands. The brains are somewhere else. The conspiracy is very big."

And that's the problem.

Although theories abound, no one knows for certain why the Memons--or anyone else--would try to bring this bustling city of 10 million to its knees. In interviews, police, intelligence officials and diplomats say evidence, so far, suggests a complex international conspiracy that began months ago and involved dozens of people and several chains of command.

But there are far more questions than answers. And facts are clouded by propaganda, rumor and speculation.

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