Suspect in N.Y. van shooting, 2 others arrested arms cache found

March 03, 1994|By New York Times News Service

NEW YORK -- A 28-year-old man described as a Lebanese national was arrested and charged in the Brooklyn Bridge gunfire attack on four Hasidic students and charged with attempted murder yesterday after a swift investigation significantly aided by citizens who alerted police about the suspect's attempt to flee and hide.

The arrest of the suspect, identified as Rashad Baz, and the confiscation of an assortment of loaded semiautomatic weapons was announced by Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani in exultant tones at a City Hall news conference.

"Our streets are not open to bloodshed, and our communities will not tolerate violence," the mayor declared as he pleaded for calm from a city fretful at the specter of becoming a crossroads for sectarian vendetta and violence.

Two other people were taken into custody in Brooklyn on charges apparently related to the aftermath of the bridge shootings when, police said, the gunman sought to hide in Brooklyn and find quick car repairs.

The two, identified as Bassam Reyati, 27, and Hlai Mohammad, 32, were charged with hindering a prosecution and possessing weapons.

Full details of the suspected gunman's arrest were not made public. But police sources said the critical factor was an tip from a citizen in Brooklyn who had heard descriptions of the gunman's car and recognized it when it was presented for window repair soon after the shooting at the bridge.

Mr. Baz had worked in recent years as a livery driver after entering the United States on a student visa 10 years ago, according to police.

They released few details on his background and declined to speculate on the possible motive for the Tuesday morning assault on the students as they journeyed back in a van to Brooklyn from Manhattan and were sprayed with gunfire.

One senior law enforcement official, emphasizing that little had been turned up in the search for the suspect's personal and political history, speculated privately that the heavily armed suspect may have actually been intent on stalking the grand rebbe and leader of the Lubavitch Hasidic movement, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, revered internationally by his followers.

At the moment of attack, the students were traveling back to the Lubavitch headquarters in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, after visiting the rebbe at a Manhattan hospital. Rebbe Schneerson himself had left the hospital earlier and was not near the bridge at the time of the shooting.

"The guy might have been after the rebbe," this official speculated, emphasizing that the powerful assortment of confiscated weapons -- two 9 mm handguns, a fast-action "Streetsweeper" shotgun, and a .380 semiautomatic handgun -- indicated a certain degree of premeditation.

The arsenal, some of it confiscated at the suspect's Brooklyn home, was also cited by other officials in playing down the theory that the attack might have been only a hurried act of vengeance for the slaying of dozens of praying Muslims in Hebron in the Israeli-occupied West Bank last Friday by an anti-Arab militant Jewish settler from Brooklyn.

The Hebron massacre and the bridge shootings, while continents apart and unrelated thus far in official inquiries, have highlighted the role of the city, and Brooklyn especially, as a multi-ethnic magnet and as a middle ground for the acting out of violent frictions rooted here and abroad.

The arrests in the bridge assault were announced by city officials already on alert with concern over the Hebron massacre's potential effects here and over the verdict expected soon in the tense bombing trial of accused Muslim militants in last year's World Trade Center explosion.

Police sources said last night that when Mr. Baz was arrested, his possessions included Islamic prayer beads and other religious articles, as well as a newspaper clipping about a bombing in Lebanon. Detectives said there was no indication of his political beliefs or of any connection to known militant groups.

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