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Grenade Attacker's ID in Question

Two witnesses who saw officer fatally shot during incident tell Army hearing they don't believe assailant was Sgt. Asan Akbar.

June 18, 2003|Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writer

FT. KNOX, Ky. — Two soldiers who saw an Army captain shot to death during a March ambush in Kuwait testified Tuesday that they do not believe the assailant was Sgt. Asan Akbar -- including one witness who was so certain that he declared that the 32-year-old Los Angeles native was "absolutely not" the attacker.

Other witnesses testified that some soldiers were so angry and upset after hand grenades were tossed into three Army tents that some seemed to rush to judgment about Akbar's alleged involvement. The brigade, which was preparing to go to war with Iraq, suddenly found itself beefing up security to protect Akbar's safety, witnesses testified.

Akbar is charged with two counts of premeditated murder, including the slaying of Capt. Christopher S. Seifert, who, like other panicking soldiers, rushed from burning tents where grenades had just exploded early on the morning of March 23.

"The person just raced out of the darkness and shot Capt. Seifert in the back. He shot, looked back, and ran," 1st Sgt. Rodlon A. Stevenson recalled from the witness stand.

Seifert, hit from just a few feet way, began to slip into shock.

"I knew he was in a bad way," Stevenson said. "He kept wanting to pass out. I kept slapping him in the face. I told him he had to fight for his family, that he had a newborn, that he couldn't go like this."

Stevenson described the shooter as an African American male in camouflage pants and a brown T-shirt, who fired a single shot from an M-4 rifle that he held in both hands.

But after seeing Akbar under arrest several hours after the incident, Stevenson said he did not believe it was the same man.

He testified that he later told Army investigators, "I went over to look at the soldier and this was not in any way the man who I saw shoot Capt. Seifert."

Another soldier, Sgt. 1st Class Thomas Burns, also was nearby when Seifert was shot, and he remembered seeing the muzzle flash and the gunman running back into the shadows.

A short time later, Burns testified, he was taken before Akbar, who was in handcuffs and guarded by heavily armed military police.

Is that the gunman? he was asked. "No, sir," Burns said he told the Army investigators at the scene. "Absolutely not."

The eyewitness testimony came in contrast to recollections Monday from two other soldiers who also witnessed the attack. They testified that they thought Akbar resembled the assailant but that they could not provide many more details other than that the attacker and Akbar were African American males.

Akbar also is charged with three counts of attempted murder in the wounding of 14 soldiers in the grenade attack. Army officials here are holding a preliminary hearing to consider the government's case against him. If he is ordered to a court-martial, he could ultimately receive the death penalty.

The government, meanwhile, presented more of its case against Akbar, a Muslim who was born Mark Fidel Kools. His mother changed his name to Hasan Akbar when he was 3; the spelling of his first name was changed later.

There was detailed testimony showing that the M4 rifle used by the assailant was the same weapon that had been assigned to Akbar, as well as evidence that Akbar had earlier earned an "expert" score in grenade practice.

In addition, Special Agent David Maier Jr. of the Army's Criminal Investigation Division testified that someone had turned off the outside generator lights right before the 1 a.m. grenade attack, creating a situation where the assailant would be hard to see in the dark as soldiers ran from the campground.

Maier said fingerprints on the generator matched "the left middle finger of Sgt. Akbar."

He testified that investigators found a series of grenade pull pins outside the tent openings and recovered muzzle caps from the M4 rifle as well.

In a bunker set up in case of scud or chemical attack -- where Akbar later was arrested -- Maier said officials found three grenade canisters among Akbar's gear.

Maier said he was told by other officers at the scene about Akbar's alleged fears that American soldiers would hurt Muslims. He attempted to interview Akbar at the camp, but Akbar declined, instead asking to see a defense attorney.

However, Maier said, he was advised that Akbar had already given an explanation for the ambush. "He stated that he had done this act because we American soldiers were going to kill and rape Muslims," Maier said.

He added that the FBI conducted its own investigation to check for any links between Akbar and terrorist organizations, and to check whether Akbar might have been involved with any violent Islamic groups. He said that as far he knew, there were no terrorist ties.

When Akbar was arrested, he was treated for a leg injury, officials said. But it was unclear how he was injured.

At times, other soldiers came by to see him, several of them angry or crying, witnesses said.

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