January 2, 1997
Web posted at: 10:45 p.m. EST

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- At least seven letter bombs disguised as holiday cards were discovered Thursday in the Washington area and at the federal prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. A key figure in the World Trade Center bombing may be the link between the devices, CNN has learned.

No one was hurt, but the FBI was so concerned that it took the unusual step of issuing a public warning. It urged people to be on the lookout for any suspicious packages mailed from Egypt.

Four of the booby-trapped missives were mailed to the Washington offices of the Arabic-language newspaper Al-Hayat, located in the National Press Club -- just two blocks from the White House. A fifth was found in the undelivered mail at a Washington-area post office. Two other bombs were found at the penitentiary at Fort Leavenworth, addressed to the parole officer.

The FBI took charge of the investigation, citing "political overtones."

Salameh

CNN learned Thursday night that a major figure in the World Trade Center bombing case may be a link between the bombs found in the Washington area and those mailed to Fort Leavenworth. The FBI was trying to determine if the letter bombs can be linked to Mohammed Salameh, a federal law enforcement official said.

"It's way too early to tell, but that's one of the things that's being looked at," the official told CNN.

Salameh was sentenced to life in prison without parole for his role in the 1993 bombing. Prosecutors said Salameh rented the van used to carry out the New York attack, which killed six people. He has already served more than two years of his sentence at Leavenworth, about 25 miles northwest of Kansas City.

Bombs were mailed from Egypt

The bombs all contained plastic explosives and used straight pins as shrapnel. All of the letters came from Egypt. Some of them were mailed in the Egyptian city of Alexandria on December 21, the FBI said. They bore no return address.

"Letter bombs disguised as holiday or Christmas cards were sent through the mails from Egypt to recipients in the United States," the FBI said in a statement, adding that it was cautioning "people to be alert for similar cards."

"None of the bombs exploded but (they) would have caused grave harm" had they been opened, it said.

detonation

The agency said the bombs were contained in plain white envelopes, 5 1/2 by 6 1/2 inches in size, with computer generated addresses. There were other markings on the envelopes, the FBI said, but it did not elaborate.

Public urged to be wary

"Anyone receiving similar cards should use extreme caution, not handle the envelopes in any way, and immediately notify the local police or local FBI office," it said.

A federal official requesting anonymity told CNN the plastic explosive is believed to be Semtex or C-4 and has been sent to FBI headquarters laboratory for forensic testing. The straight pins used in the letter bombs were clearly intended to do harm to whoever opened the parcels, the official said.

National Press Club evacuated after bombs found

The first two bombs were found by an employee at the offices of Al-Hayat. A source close to the investigation said someone handling one of the letters spotted a wire inside and became suspicious.

building

The letters were taken to a parking lot at RFK stadium, where they were detonated by the Washington Metropolitan Police Department bomb squad.

Hours later, investigators discovered the third and fourth bombs in the incoming mail at the offices of Al-Hayat.

The National Press Club building, which houses the offices of several publications and is located two blocks from the White House, was evacuated Thursday afternoon as the bombs were being removed.

A fifth letter bomb, also addressed to Al-Hayat, was discovered at the central mail processing facility for the District of Columbia.

Meanwhile, in Kansas, two letter bombs were found at the federal penitentiary in Fort Leavenworth. Penitentiary officials told CNN a prison staff member spotted the devices. Both letters were addressed to the prison parole officer.

After the bombs were discovered at the Al-Hayat office, a federal investigator told CNN, "The first priority was rendering the parcels safe."

Federal agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the Postal Inspection Service, as well as the Washington Police Department, were assisting in the probe.

Newspaper seen as moderate voice

Al-Hayat is a London-based newspaper that describes itself as part of the "mainstream Arab press." It is generally viewed as a moderate voice in the Arab community.

Washington-based Arab organizations were attempting to learn details of the incident, but declined to speculate on who might have reason to bomb Al-Hayat's Washington office.

al.hayat

Speaking by telephone from London, Al-Hayat Editor Jihad Khazen told CNN: "We were surprised. We've had threatening phone calls over the years but this is the first time we had a physical threat. I can't think of any group or persons behind it."

Khazen noted that his 160,000-circulation newspaper strongly supports Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and has condemned Islamic militants who want to overthrow Mubarak's secular government and replace it was a theocracy.

"It could have been them, or other fundamentalists or other extremists in other parts of the Arab world," Khazen said.

The U.S. government has said the ringleader of the group that bombed the World Trade Center was Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, a blind Egyptian cleric. He is serving a life prison term after being convicted of conspiring to carry out a campaign of terror that included plots to bomb the United Nations and other New York City landmarks, and to assassinate Mubarak.

 
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