BUENOS AIRES — Authorities investigating the bombing of a Jewish community center in 1994 were interrogating Monday more than a dozen police officers suspected of links to the terrorist attack.
The arrests of several high-ranking commanders and other officers of the Buenos Aires provincial police came days before Thursday's two-year anniversary of the bombing that killed 87 people, the deadliest anti-Semitic attack outside Israel since World War II.
The investigating magistrate is pursuing a new theory that police officers supplied the stolen van used for the bombing, which was allegedly carried out by Middle Eastern terrorists.
It was not clear Monday if the new arrests amount to a breakthrough after months of frustration in the case of the attack on the Argentine-Jewish Mutual Assn. But by focusing on links between corrupt police and the trail of the terrorists' vehicle, the probe is moving in the right direction, according to analysts and leaders of the Jewish community.
"This could be a new advance in the case," said Ruben Beraja, a Jewish leader, who said Jewish groups had urged an investigation of alleged police involvement. "It is important because it reveals that there is no impunity, and we can begin to recover confidence in the investigation."
Investigators suspect that the terrorists received the stolen van from provincial police officers. The police in turn allegedly obtained the van eight days before the July 18 attack from an alleged gangster named Carlos Alberto Telleldin, who reportedly operated a stolen vehicle ring in the suburbs of Buenos Aires with police protection. Until the weekend arrests, Telleldin was the only suspect being held.
Telleldin recently decided to implicate his police accomplices, according to prosecutor Eamon Mullen. "There was a repentance on the part of Telleldin, and he gave us new information," Mullen told reporters.
On Monday, Judge Juan Jose Galeano continued grilling 18 police officers, including commanders, deputy commanders, inspectors and the chief of the province's auto theft squad. Federal police arrested twelve officers last weekend on suspicion of failing to do their duty as public servants; six more were hauled in as witnesses.
Investigators say they hope the interrogations will reveal which officers had contact with the terrorists, who are allegedly Iranian-sponsored operatives of the Hezbollah organization. Telleldin says a police commander and other officers escorted the van away from Telleldin's house in a small convoy on July 10, 1994. The van was then stored at a parking garage and driven by a suicide bomber to the target, authorities say.
"It was pretty clear that there was some action by the provincial police that inculpated them in all this," said a Western diplomat who has followed the case. "The extent to which they can show active participation in terrorism is the problem."
This lead appears more promising than the last flurry of action in the case seven months ago, when police arrested a band of military men and activists in Modin, a small, right-wing party, the diplomat said.
In May, those suspects were released on bail, despite evidence that they trafficked in arms and explosives and the suspicious presence of one suspect a block from the explosion.
Judicial authorities have told The Times that a Modin congressman and former army captain, Emilio Morello, remains under investigation in the case. They also suspect that Iranian diplomats were the masterminds of the crime.
Since Argentina's "dirty war" of 1976-83, extremists in the police force and military have taken part in anti-Semitic violence and gangsterism. Nonetheless, the judge must prove that police officers furnished the van to the terrorists and determine whether they were knowing accomplices. And he must answer another question: Did the police merely cover up their protection of the auto theft ring, or did police and military men participate in a terrorist conspiracy and then obstruct the investigation?