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Trail Heats Up in '94 Argentina Bombing

Old-fashioned police work, U.S. pressure have revived case, politicians and Jewish leaders say.

December 06, 1997|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BUENOS AIRES — The hunt for terrorists who slaughtered 86 people in the bombing of a Jewish community center here in 1994 has picked up unexpected momentum.

The labyrinthine trail has led to the Middle East, Europe, Florida and Los Angeles, where last week Argentine investigators questioned an enigmatic witness in one of the deadliest anti-Semitic terrorist attacks.

During his visit here in October, President Clinton met with relatives of the victims and promised U.S. support. Clinton's pressure, plus an infusion of political will and old-fashioned police work, revived a case that seemed dormant, according to politicians and Jewish leaders here.

"I am moderately optimistic," said Marcelo Stubrin, a member of the Chamber of Deputies and its commission investigating the bombing. Referring to the alleged role of renegade police and rightist extremists, he said, "We have to cleanse this society of all this garbage that has survived despite years of democracy."

Four police officials are charged with providing the van that served as a vehicle bomb. Investigators believe that the attack also involved Iranian terrorists and members of Modin, a rightist political party of former military officers known for coup attempts and anti-Semitic violence.

The latest and most politically prominent investigative target is congressional Deputy Emilio Morello, a former army captain and Modin member. Under questioning by the commission last week, Morello denied allegations that he met with Iranian diplomats and traveled secretly to the Middle East. Police are scrutinizing Morello because of his ties to accused arms traffickers in Modin, including a military explosives expert, who were yards away at the time of the bombing. Other Modin activists showed up at the bombing site in a phony ambulance.

Meanwhile, Judge Juan Jose Galeano sought another piece of the puzzle: the suspected Iranian connection. After gathering information in France and Germany on Iranian terrorism, Galeano flew to Los Angeles to re-interview witness Manouchehr Moatamer, an Iranian defector who lives in California.

Moatamer, who fled Iran in 1994, describes himself as a former well-placed Iranian operative with powerful family connections. He says he had access to meetings where intelligence officials plotted the Buenos Aires bombing. During his testimony last week in the Argentine Consulate in Los Angeles, he provided purportedly official Iranian documents on the plot to back his claims.

Moatamer first told Galeano his story in 1994 in Venezuela, where he said he had eluded a kidnap attempt by Iranian spies. That testimony led Galeano to issue arrest warrants for three Iranian diplomats in Argentina, but the effort stalled for lack of evidence.

In California, Moatamer has appeared on Iranian-language television and radio and been questioned about his allegations by U.S. intelligence agents, according to Argentine and U.S. officials. Iranian officials, who deny any role in the bombing, call Moatamer a con man. But investigators believe that he can help them. During his 1994 testimony in Venezuela, he predicted a bombing at the Israeli Embassy in London that occurred days later during a worldwide terror offensive.

"What we have found out during these past three years has made him more credible," prosecutor Jose Barbaccia said. "If his information is authentic, it is important."

*

Important information has surfaced about the chief suspect, Juan Jose Ribelli, former commander of the Buenos Aires provincial police. Ribelli received $2.5 million in cash, police say, the day after he acquired the stolen van--and seven days before the explosives-laden van blew up the Argentine-Israeli Mutual Assn.

Investigators believe that the money was a payment from terrorists, rejecting Ribelli's claim that it came from his father, a retired railroad worker who collects a small pension. Ribelli must explain another mystery: After the bombing, he spent days in a hotel that housed an Israeli rescue and forensics team. Police suspect that he spied on the Israelis and obstructed the investigation with the aid of higher-ranking chiefs.

And the FBI is investigating reports that Ribelli has property and bank accounts in Florida, according to Javier Astigarraga, a lawyer for the victims.

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