14 indicted in Khobar Towers bombing; Iran involvement seen
WASHINGTON (AP) – Thirteen Saudis and a Lebanese alleged to be members of a terrorist group supported by Iranian officials were indicted Thursday, nearly five years after the Khobar Towers bombing that killed 19 American servicemen in Saudi Arabia.
A 46-count indictment handed up by a federal grand jury in Alexandria, Va., said that elements of the Iranian government supervised and supported the suspects, but no Iranian government officials were charged.
President Bush promised to continue searching for those responsible for the bombing and said more people might be charged.
In a statement to victims’ families and survivors, Bush said, ”Your government will not forget your loss, and will continue working, based on the evidence, to make sure that justice is done.”
The Iranian government has denied any involvement, and U.S. officials say there is no proof as yet that Iran sponsored the attack on the Khobar Towers, however intimate the links between the Iranians and their Saudi allies may have been.
Bush spoke by phone Thursday with Crown Prince Abdullah to thank him for Saudi Arabia’s cooperation in the investigation.
At FBI headquarters, Attorney General John Ashcroft said, ”The indictment explains that elements of the Iranian government inspired, supported and supervised members of Saudi Hezbollah.”
”In particular,” he said, ”the indictment alleges that the charged defendants reported their surveillance activities to Iranian officials and were supported and directed in those activities by Iranian officials … The only limitation on this case, as in any criminal case, is what we believe we can prove in a court of law.”
The indictment, coming just days before the statute of limitations on the attempted murder and some of the conspiracy charges were to expire, accuses the suspects of murder, attempted murder and conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction. About 40 of the charges are punishable by death.
None of the suspects, all members of the shadowy Saudi Hezbollah that had long been thought to be behind the bombing, are in custody in the United States.
FBI Director Louis Freeh, whose term ends this week, said the United States is in discussions to gain access to suspects being held in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, and is searching for others.
He said various treaties and extradition agreements could be used to bring the suspects to the United States for trial, and others could be prosecuted where they are held. The United States does not have an extradition treaty with Saudi Arabia.
One suspect, Hani Al-Sayegh, accused of driving the vehicle used to scout the bombing site, had cut a deal under which he would have revealed what he knew about the bombing in exchange for pleading guilty to participating in an unrelated, never realized attack against Americans. The deal would have kept him from being deported him to Saudi Arabia, where he said he faced torture and execution.
But then he reneged, claiming he knew nothing about the bombing. He was deported to Saudi Arabia in 1999. Freeh said there wasn’t enough to charge him.
The indictment says that members of Saudi Hezbollah began extensive surveillance in search of a U.S. target in 1993, settling two years later on the American military housing high-rise near Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.
Most of the Saudis indicted are young Shiite Muslim males who lived in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia, ruled by Sunni Muslims. The indictment said they were trained in Lebanon and also in predominantly Shiite Iran.
The suspects include the head of the Saudi Hezbollah; the chief of the group’s military wing, believed to have fled to Iran; and several other prominent members.
Two of the suspects are said to have driven the bomb truck that exploded in front of the dormitory complex; two others were in a scout vehicle that gave an all clear signal.
Hearing of the indictments, loved ones had mixed feelings.
”It’s five years of pure hell, with or without indictments, that part doesn’t change,” said Fran Heiser, of Palm Coast, Fla., who lost her only child, Michael, a 35-year-old Air Force master sergeant. ”It’s nice to see this coming to a head.”
Kathy Wood, whose 20-year-old son, Airman First Class Justin Wood, was the youngest killed, said that the indictments brought little relief. Without charges against Iranians, ”we’re not getting at the meat of the terrorists,” said Wood, of Modesto, Calif.
Air Force chief of staff Gen. Mike Ryan applauded the indictments, saying they ”send the message to all terrorists that they will be hunted down and will pay for their crimes.”
After the attack, the United States moved its Air Force contingent to Prince Sultan Air Base, a vast compound providing much stricter security in a remote stretch of desert south of Riyadh. U.S. forces still there fly missions over southern Iraq to enforce a ”no fly” zone.
The FBI said the investigation into the blast moved slowly, in part because the Saudi government restricted access to witnesses and evidence. Eventually, FBI agents were allowed to formulate questions and watch as Saudi authorities posed 212 questions to eight suspects.
Free said there was ”an estrangement” between U.S. and Saudi authorities initially because the two sides didn’t know each other, but added that U.S. and Saudi agents now have a strong relationship.
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