The Washington Times / July 18, 1999
By Larry Luxner
Today, as Argentina's 250,000 Jews hold rallies marking the fifth anniversary of an explosion that ripped apart the headquarters of the country's most important Jewish institution, a delegation of Argentine Jewish officials is visiting Washington, seeking U.S. help in jump-starting the floundering investigation.
The July 18, 1994, destruction of the Buenos Aires offices of AMIA, a Jewish social welfare organization, killed 86 people and injured 240. It came only two years after a similar car-bomb leveled the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 29 and injuring 252.
"There's enough evidence to support the theory that both of these attacks were inspired and executed by fundamentalist Islamic terrorists, but it is known that local elements participated as well," said Rogelio Cichowolski, president of the Delegacion de Asociaciones Israelitas Argentinas (DAIA). "From our point of view, this was one attack in two stages. The pattern in each was the same, and those who ordered it came from the same place."
Last week, an Argentine government prosecutor announced he'd seek life sentences for 19 people, including 10 former officers of the Buenos Aires provincial police force, who are accused of being accomplices in the 1994 bombing. The prosecutor said he'll be ready to present his case within two months.
"The big paradox is that those charged with this crime are the very same people who are supposed to protect society," said Cichowolski. "In the four years they've been detained, they've systematically refused to testify. There's a pact of silence among them. We're hopeful that in the forthcoming public trial, mandatory testimony will provide a breakthrough."
Cichowolski, a 55-year-old attorney, was interviewed Wednesday following a briefing at the Washington headquarters of B'nai B'rith International. He said without elaborating that new revelations concerning the 1992 Israeli Embassy attack -- for which the Islamic Jihad quickly claimed responsibility -- "will positively influence the investigation" into the much more deadly 1994 bombing.
"The physical element that relates these policemen [to the 1994 incident] is the vehicle used in the explosion. Many of the parts of that vehicle were found in the ruins of the building and in the bodies of the victims," Cichowolski said, noting that the last-known previous owner of the Renault Traffic van in question was stolen-car dealer Carlos Alberto Telleldin, who it turned out had entered into a partnership with members of the Buenos Aires provincial police, which guaranteed his impunity in exchange for money or goods.
"We still haven't been able to determine what happened to the van between July 10 and July 18, 1994. We do not yet know who provided the explosives that were loaded into the van," said Cichowolski, adding that the government is looking into the possible role played by the carapintadas (Spanish for painted faces), an anti-Semitic, pro-fascist cell within the Argentine military.
Another avenue being scrutinized is the role of Iranian-backed Hezbollah militants in the remote triborder area where Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay meet. The special prosecutor's office has uncovered records of phone calls between the mosque in Ciudad del Este, Paraguay, and the At-Tahwit mosque in Buenos Aires where Iran's cultural attache prayed. The Iranian diplomat, who was assigned to Buenos Aires a few months before the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy, was later expelled.
Only last week, said Cichowolski, federal authorities issued an all-points bulletin because they believed that a truck loaded with explosives and driven by two Iranians had crossed from Paraguay into Argentina. That lead was later discredited, yet the paranoia continues.
"Because of the attacks, security at all Jewish institutions has been stepped up. The fact that nothing has been solved is a clear indication of the danger that persists, not only for Argentina, but also for other countries in the region," said Cichowolski. "Some people react negatively, but in general, Argentine society has shown a great deal of solidarity with the Jews since the attacks."
During President Menem's visit to Washington earlier this year, B'nai B'rith International urged the Argentine leader to wrap up its probe and apprehend those responsible for both attacks. In its resolution, the Jewish organization asked the U.S., Canadian and British governments "to use their leverage and influence with the Argentine government to ensure that justice is served."
Yet Diego Ramiro Guelar, Argentina's ambassador to the United States, denies the Menem government is blocking the investigations in any way. On the contrary, he says 100 full-time investigators and support staff have been assigned to the case, and that the government is offering a $3 million reward for information related to the two bombings.
"There is no doubt that some [local] logistics has to exist. But this is not related to a local conflict. That's why it's hard to find the culprits, because the real authors are not members of the Argentine community," said Guelar, who also happens to be Argentina's first Jewish envoy in Washington. "The Argentine Jewish community knows very clearly the feeling of frustration because of the difficulty of finding those responsible, even though Argentina is making an extraordinary effort."
Guelar, noting that Argentina's own intelligence service last year helped thwart a planned bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Asuncion, Paraguay, by Iranian-backed Islamic fundamentalists, said cooperation with U.S. authorities on the continuing investigation is good, but that "it's more active" from the Argentine side.
"We have to keep the investigation open, and we need to strengthen our links of cooperation with other intelligence services such as the CIA, the FBI, Israel's Mossad and police forces in Europe," said the diplomat. "This was organized without any doubt by international terrorists, and the only way to solve this is through international cooperation."