Khobar Towers indictments returned
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Thirteen Saudis and a Lebanese were indicted Thursday on charges of murder and conspiracy for the 1996 bombing that killed 19 American servicemen in Saudi Arabia. The indictment alleges that the suspects were directed by Iranian government officials.
The 46-count indictment alleges that all 14 men were members of the Islamic militant group Hezbollah, which federal officials said received support and inspiration from individuals within the Iranian government.
No Iranian officials were named in the indictment.
The indictments were announced before the statute of limitations expires Monday on the attempted murder and various conspiracy charges. Monday will mark the fifth anniversary of the bombing.
"The indictment filed today means that next week's five-year anniversary of this tragedy will come with some assurance to victims' family members and to the wounded that they are not and will not be forgotten," Attorney General John Ashcroft said at a joint news conference with FBI Director Louis Freeh.
While the indictment did not name any Iranian officials, Ashcroft said members of that government at the time were involved.
"The indictment explains that elements of the Iranian government inspired, supported and supervised members of Saudi Hezbollah," Ashcroft said. "In particular, 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."
Freeh said "diplomatic considerations played no part" in the decision not to seek indictments at this time of Iranian suspects. He said the indictment filed Thursday were against suspects authorities believe there is sufficient evidence to bring to justice.
Of the 14 indicted, Freeh said an unspecified number were in custody. Nor would he say what government has detained them.
"There's a number of them that we need to find, and we will find them," Freeh said in his last news conference before he steps down. "I am very confident that they will be brought to justice and, hopefully, in the United States, some of them at some point."
He emphasized the case remains open and the United States will "leave no stone unturned" in prosecuting others who may have been involved.
President Bush issued a written statement, praising law enforcement for their efforts in the "intensive investigation of this deplorable act of terrorism."
"To the families of those who were killed and to those who were injured, I want to extend my personal sympathy and to assure you that your government will not forget your loss and will continue working, based on the evidence, to make sure that justice is done," Bush said.
Ashcroft said the planning to bomb Americans began in 1993 with "extensive surveillance to find American targets in Saudi Arabia." By 1995, "the terrorists focused on Khobar Towers," Ashcroft said.
The U.S. airmen were killed when a truck bomb exploded shortly before 10 p.m. on June 25, 1996, outside the Khobar Towers, their military housing complex near Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. In addition to the 19 killed, more than 370 Americans and Saudis were wounded in the attack.
"After amassing large amounts of plastic explosives, the terrorists assisted by an as yet unidentified member of Lebanese Hezbollah ... converted a tanker truck into a huge bomb," Ashcroft said.
Among the charges filed were murder, attempted murder, conspiracy to kill U.S. nationals, conspiracy to kill U.S. employees and use of weapons of mass destruction against U.S. nationals.
In a statement issued Thursday, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mike Ryan said he was pleased with the announcement.
"As an expeditionary air force, we operate in harm's way on a global basis every day. These indictments send the message to all terrorists that they will be hunted down and will pay for their crimes," he wrote. Some family members of the victims will be in Washington Monday to mark the anniversary and will meet with Freeh, a strong advocate of pursuing the case.
Paul Blais, a survivor of the bombing and a retired senior Air Force airman, told CNN that he is "trying to forget the event as much as I can, because it meant the death of 19 of my co-workers."
"It has been a challenge ever since just to be able to do various activities that I used to do on a regular basis," said Blais, who was in a coma for five months after the blast and was awarded a Purple Heart.
Before the indictments were announced, sources close to the investigation told CNN that U.S. law enforcement may not have enough evidence to indict Iranian intelligence officials, though U.S. officials have said for months they are suspected of helping to plan the attack.
Secretary of State Colin Powell and other senior State Department officials had "serious discussions" as to what indictments could go forward, a State Department official told CNN.
However, officials stress that Powell "did not recommend" holding back on possible indictments against Iranian officials suspected of involvement in the case. In fact, one of Powell's aides described the secretary's attitude toward the case, with respect to the suspected Iranian link to Khobar, as "a toothache" he wished would go away.
While some government sources have criticized the Saudi government for being less than cooperative, Freeh thanked the Saudis for "world-class cooperation."
Freeh acknowledged that in the early investigative stages there was difficult because the FBI and Saudi police had never really worked together.
"I think there was an estrangement between the two services precisely because we didn't know each other," he said. "I think it was a relationship that had to grow and now is a very strong one."
Pentagon sources said there has been evidence ever since the truck bomb attack that linked Iranians to the blast, and former Defense Secretary William Perry once publicly identified Iran as a suspect. Other U.S. officials said the United States has long suspected members of Iranian security forces of being linked to the attack on Khobar Towers at the King Abdul Aziz air base.
But a Pentagon official described the evidence of an Iranian link as "not enough to win an indictment, but enough to make an informed policy decision." The problem, he said, is linking the Iranians who may have played a part in the bombing to the Iranian government of the time.
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