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Canada Places Suspect at Scene of Deadly Saudi Bombing

Terrorism: Court papers say alleged Hezbollah member conducted surveillance at barracks where 19 U.S. service personnel were killed.

March 28, 1997|CRAIG TURNER and ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — A Saudi national under arrest in Canada played a crucial role in the terrorist bombing last year of a barracks in eastern Saudi Arabia that killed 19 American service personnel, Canadian authorities charged in documents made public Thursday.

Hani Abdel Rahim Hussein Sayegh was described in court papers as having conducted surveillance at the site of the bombing, the Khobar Towers in Dhahran, and of signaling the driver of a truckload of explosives that it was safe to enter the parking lot of the complex, where the explosives were set off.

The papers, released in Ottawa after a hearing before Canadian federal Judge Donna McGillis, identified Sayegh as a member of Saudi Hezbollah, which was described as a Shiite Muslim terrorist organization affiliated with similar groups in Lebanon and Iran.

The blast, on the night of June 25, 1996, also injured 384 people, including 109 Americans.

Sayegh, who was not permitted to attend Thursday's hearing, denied any involvement in the attack during a telephone interview with The Times earlier this week from the Ottawa detention center where he is being held without bail. He said he was in Syria at the time of the explosion.

Sayegh entered Canada on Aug. 16, 1996, and identified himself as a political refugee.

U.S. officials have described Sayegh's arrest as a potential breakthrough in the investigation.

One focus of the probe is whether the attack was carried out by internal Saudi dissidents or was orchestrated by Iran.

Saudi officials long have claimed that Iran was behind the bombing, but senior U.S. officials said Thursday that Washington still does not have conclusive proof that anyone in Tehran was the mastermind.

Nothing in the documents released Thursday directly linked Iran or any other government to the bombing.

The Iranian Embassy in Ottawa on Thursday denied press reports that Sayegh had been in touch with officials there before his arrest last week.

Saudi officials contend that Sayegh, 28, was a recruiter who worked with an Iranian intelligence official operating out of Iran's embassy in Syria, according to Vince Cannistraro, a former senior CIA counter-terrorism official.

Sayegh would scout for Saudi dissidents who made pilgrimages to Shiite religious sites. Most would be sent to Iran for religious and ideological training, but a few would be sent to receive guerrilla training at camps in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley run by Hezbollah, Cannistraro said.

According to the documents released Thursday, Sayegh scouted the Khobar Towers from a car parked in front of the building.

On the night of the attack, he allegedly flashed his headlights to alert the driver of a tanker truck loaded with 5,000 pounds of explosives to go ahead with the bombing.

Two men parked the truck, jumped into a second car and the two vehicles sped away. The bomb exploded within six minutes.

The 19-page statement was filed in support of a rarely used provision of Canadian immigration law that permits authorities to arrest and deport without appeal immigrants deemed a security threat to Canada.

Thursday's hearing was to allow the judge to determine whether there were proper grounds for the detention.

Instead of reaching a decision, however, McGillis scheduled a public hearing for April 28 in which Sayegh and his lawyer will be permitted to present evidence on his behalf.

If the judge upholds the arrest, there will be a second procedure before an immigration adjudicator who will decide whether to deport Sayegh.

Because Sayegh entered Canada via Boston, it is possible that he could be deported to the United States. American authorities have expressed interest in interrogating Sayegh.

His arrest can be traced to information obtained during Saudi interrogations of suspected Hezbollah members picked up in a major sweep of Shiite Muslim dissidents after the bombing, according to senior U.S. officials.

In his interview with The Times, Sayegh confirmed that many of the people who received religious training with him in Qom, Iran's theological center, were in detention in the kingdom. But he denied being a member of Hezbollah or any other formal dissident group.

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