FBI agents investigate 'Hollywood' blast in S. Africa Retaliation seen as bomb kills one at U.S. symbol

August 27, 1998|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- FBI agents, fresh from the U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, flew in here last night to help investigate an explosion at Planet Hollywood, the garish and successful symbol of American culture on this city's popular waterfront.

The restaurant bombing here Tuesday night, which left one dead and 27 injured, is suspected of being in retaliation for last week's U.S. missile raids against Sudan and Afghanistan.

"No one should be allowed to use South African soil to play out their fantasies, whatever their evil motivation," said security minister Sydney Moufamadi, predicting a "breakthrough" in the investigation "soon."

The blast, which may turn out to be this new democracy's first brush with international terrorism, sent shock waves around the nation.

It helped surprisingly high inflation figures send the Johannesburg stock market plunging yesterday, at one point wiping 9 percent off its value.

It brought expressions of fear that the country's tourism industry, slated to bring in $4 billion a year and sustain 860,000 jobs by 2000, would be hit hard as terrorism joined crime as a major deterrent to vacations here. Local operators already were reporting cancellations yesterday, although last night on the waterfront -- which rivals Baltimore's as a tourist attraction -- it appeared to be business as usual outside the razor wire ringing the bomb site.

U.S. Embassy spokesman Bruce Wharton urged Americans traveling here to be "cautious," but warned against drawing "premature conclusions about who is responsible and also what motives were behind the attack."

South African TV news last night said it had a videotape of the suspected bomber, who planted the bomb in a corner beside the restaurant's blue-tiled bar, but would not screen it to avoid compromising the investigation.

In a call to a local radio station shortly after the blast, responsibility was claimed by a man who said he represented Muslims Against Global Oppression, but a spokesman for the fundamentalist group later denied any involvement.

The group protested President Clinton's visit here last March, and has held small demonstrations outside the U.S. and Israeli embassies.

"It's known to be interested in an international agenda," said Peter Gastrow, of the South African Institute for Strategic Studies. "It's not a well-known group, but some believe it serves as an umbrella organization for a number of militant groups."

The FBI agents flew from Nairobi where they had been investigating the Aug. 7 bombings of the U.S. embassies there ** and Dar es Salaam that left more than 250 dead and more than 5,000 injured. They will "compare notes," with investigators here but will not take over the case, said Moufamadi.

The Planet Hollywood bomb was much smaller than the bombs in Kenya and Tanzania, but in the confined space of a crowded restaurant it created its own carnage, blowing both legs off the dead victim, and seriously wounding many others.

Surgeons amputated the foot of 8-year-old Laura Giddings while her 3-year-old brother was in intensive care with spine injuries. Her father, mother and grandfather also were injured in the blast.

Her grandmother, Iris Giddings, the only member of the visiting English family not to be hurt, said: "I was knocked down and saw my family all lying injured before me. It was one of the most terrible things I can imagine seeing."

The National Assembly yesterday unanimously condemned what it called "the senseless horror attack," and all major political parties voiced outrage.

Marthinus van Schalkwyk, leader of the opposition National Party, called for a return of the death penalty, outlawed by President Nelson Mandela's ruling African National Congress after it won power in 1994, saying: "Last night underlines that criminals think they can get away with anything."

The bomb is thought to have been a pipe bomb, a common weapon here in the conflict between a Muslim vigilante group, People Against Gangsterism and Drugs, and the criminals who hold local communities in the impoverished area of Cape Flats in fear.

PAGAD is suspected of launching several attacks on the homes of gang leaders, splitting the Muslim community over its willingness to take the law into its own hands. More recently it is suspected of using terror tactics.

Pub Date: 8/27/98

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