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Argentina alleges Iran ordered attack

October 26, 2006|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

BUENOS AIRES — Argentine prosecutors accused Tehran on Wednesday of masterminding the deadly bombing of a Jewish cultural center here 12 years ago and were seeking the arrest of former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani and other former officials of the Islamic Republic.

Argentine authorities have long contended that Iran was involved in the attack, which killed 85 and injured more than 200, but this was the strongest allegation to date linking Iran to the bombing.

The decision to strike the Jewish facility was made "by the highest authorities of the then-government of Iran," federal prosecutor Alberto Nisman said at a news conference here.

Two years ago, 22 defendants -- including four Buenos Aires police officers -- were acquitted of charges of participating in the bombing plot.

Iranian officials arranged with Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group in Lebanon with close ties to Tehran, to organize and execute the bombing, the prosecutor said Wednesday.

Nisman said the plot was hatched in August 1993, almost a year before the attack.

There was no immediate reaction either from Iran or Hezbollah. Both have previously denied involvement.

A U.S. Embassy spokesperson in Buenos Aires congratulated Argentine authorities for their findings in the "most lethal anti-Semitic attack since World War II."

The 800-page investigative report, the U.S. spokesperson said, provided "convincing evidence" that the attack "was planned and financed by the government of Iran and carried out with the operational assistance of Hezbollah and Iranian diplomats based in Argentina."

The Argentine prosecutor is asking a federal judge here to seek international arrest warrants for Rafsanjani, who served as Iran's president from 1989 to 1997.

Nisman is also seeking arrest warrants for six other former Iranian officials, including the former foreign minister and intelligence chief, two former commanders of the Revolutionary Guard and two former diplomats at the Iranian Embassy in Buenos Aires.

The prosecutors also asked the judge for an arrest warrant for Imad Fayez Moughnieh, identified as Hezbollah's former chief of international security.

Wednesday's allegations stem from a special prosecution unit investigating the bombing, which remains unsolved despite years of inquiry and controversy.

Last year, prosecutors said a Lebanese man, Ibrahim Hussein Berro, had been identified as the suicide driver of the van that exploded outside the Jewish facility.

Why Iran would target the facility remains a matter of intense speculation. Prosecutors here linked the strike to Argentina's previous decision to cancel agreements to provide Iran with nuclear technology.

The deadly strike came more than two years after a March 1992 blast destroyed the Israeli Embassy here, killing 29. That case also remains unsolved.

Allegations of incompetence, foot-dragging and corruption have long marred the investigation of the bombing at the cultural center.

A former judge investigating a so-called local connection was removed from the case and later stripped of his judgeship.

The bombing is considered the worst terrorist attack in Argentina.

Authorities say an explosives-laden van was detonated outside the Argentine Israelite Mutual Assn. near downtown Buenos Aires. The July 18, 1994, blast flattened the seven-story symbol of Argentina's 200,000-plus Jewish community, the largest in Latin America.

Jewish leaders regularly commemorate the attacks and call on authorities to solve the cases. On the anniversary of the cultural center bombing this year, representatives of the Jewish community called on Argentina to break diplomatic relations with Iran.

*

patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

Andres D'Alessandro of The Times' Buenos Aires Bureau contributed to this report.

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