Kenya bomb reported built in seedy hotel near embassy FBI, local police seize evidence from 2 rooms tied to four terrorists

August 20, 1998|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

NAIROBI, Kenya -- In a seedy hotel, in a potholed back street of this bustling capital, the bombers of the U.S. Embassy here are believed to have assembled the bomb that killed 247 and wounded more than 5,000.

The Hilltop Hotel is close to the bus depot for the port of Mombasa, where the Yemeni passport used by key suspect Mohammed Sadiq Odeh was stamped for entry into Kenya on Aug. 3 -- four days before the blast.

The hotel is less than a mile from the U.S. Embassy, which was targeted by the terrorists, who could hardly have chosen a better place to hide -- with crowds milling around the bus station and spilling on and off the narrow sidewalks lined with hole-in-the-wall shops selling everything from apples to zippers.

Armed Kenyan police and FBI agents, wearing bulletproof vests, raided the hotel Tuesday, arresting the manager James Mnuri Nnanga, a Christian, and seizing the hotel register. They returned yesterday to take photographs and videotapes around the hotel.

After herding the staff into a downstairs room Tuesday, agents concentrated on rooms A107, a two-bedroom suite on the first floor, and B102, a single room on the second floor. The rooms had been occupied by four men from Aug. 3 to Aug. 7, the day of the bombing.

Investigators spent more than three hours conducting forensic tests, dusting the walls and furniture for fingerprints, and loading cardboard cartons with evidence, the staff said.

No one in or around the Hilltop noticed anything suspicious about the guests at the yellow-painted hotel, with its open atrium and Spartan rooms with bare floors, simple wood-framed single beds, metal-framed desks and plain chairs.

"How can I describe a person I never saw," said Patrick Luvembe, who has cleaned the hotel's 17 first-floor rooms for three years. "I can't say they were making a bomb because I didn't see anything. At one point they had moved the beds, but I don't know why."

Abdulrachman Said, son of the Yemenite owner of the hotel, said: "People come and go, come and go. Different types of people, mostly Arabs, Tanzanians and Sudanese. Nobody knows who they are. The FBI has taken the books."

A sign at the reception window tells you something about the Hilltop: "Prostitution, drunkenness and disorderly conduct prohibited -- the Management." The doors to the rooms are padlocked on the outside to prevent illicit use. Food and snacks are served through an iron grill.

Joseph M. Kanyari, the hotel's caretaker who starts work at 7 A.M., said the men were not around during the day. "Many people sleep here. They come from Mombasa and just go to their rooms."

Kenyan and U.S. authorities were close-mouthed yesterday.

"The FBI and CID confirm that searches were conducted at Hilltop Hotel," the U.S. Embassy said in a statement, referring to Kenya's Criminal Investigation Division. "The investigation is proceeding in a logical manner and no further comment will be made at this time."

The local Nation newspaper broke the story about Tuesday's raid and accompanied its account with photographs of FBI agents removing boxes of evidence from the hotel.

The newspaper said 15 FBI agents, accompanied by six CID officers, were guided to the hotel by Odeh, who was extradited last week from Pakistan, where he had been arrested for traveling on a false Yemenite passport with a fake visa.

Although Odeh has been detained and questioned here for several days, no charges have been brought against him.

The Nation, quoting its own police sources, said six foreigners were believed to have been involved in the attack on the embassy, with Odeh acting as the chief architect of the bombing.

Odeh, according to the newspaper, checked into the hotel Aug. 4, the day after his fake Yemenite passport was stamped in Mombasa, Kenya's main port. The bus ride from Mombasa takes up to 10 hours because the road has been washed out.

The bomb, using 1,700 pounds of TNT, was assembled between Aug. 4 and Aug. 6, with work starting in the two rooms and continuing on the back of the covered pickup truck used in the attack on the embassy, according to the newspaper.

The Nation quoted a source as saying investigators are now sure that all three of the bombers with the truck died in the blast.

Pub Date: 8/20/98

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