Argentine police probed in Israeli embassy blast

Tape indicates guards were called away minutes before bombing in 1992

May 10, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- A tape-recording of a police radio call suggests that officials purposely removed guards from the Israeli Embassy here in 1992 three minutes before a blast that killed 29 people.

In the audiotape, discovered during prosecutors' investigations, an unidentified federal police commander orders the guards to leave their posts to take up positions at the nearby Foreign Ministry, where a demonstration was supposedly gathering. The demonstration turned out to be a hoax.

The discovery of the tape comes as government investigators are looking into possible ties between Argentine police officers and Islamic terrorists suspected of carrying out the 1994 bombing of a Jewish cultural center here that left 86 people dead.

"What is happening here is like the story of the `One Thousand and One Nights,' " said the Israeli ambassador here, Itzhak Aviran, who has long pressed Argentine officials to investigate the possible involvement of their own police in the cases.

"There's always something new, without explanation," he said.

Other recent reports on police have included retired officers planning death squad hits to fight rising crime and allegations that an organized-crime gang had enjoyed the protection of several local police forces.

The gang has been responsible for assaults on banks and other businesses across five western provinces.

Like elsewhere in Latin America, money appears to be the mother's milk of police and military wrongdoing in Argentina. Salaries are low, and the security forces have lost much of their budgets, prestige and influence under civilian rule.

In a recent interview with the newsmagazine Veintiuno, the governor of Buenos Aires, Eduardo Duhalde, acknowledged that "I feared for my life" last year while he was cashiering much of his province's police force after revelations of police involvement in various criminal acts.

Duhalde, who is a leading candidate for president, became alarmed a year ago when his bodyguards came under a series of attacks, and prosecutors began investigating whether the shootings were linked to former police officers seeking revenge. No arrests have been made.

Among the acts that forced Duhalde to take action were allegations of police collusion in the murder of a magazine photographer in 1997 as well as the arrest of the head of the provincial police department's stolen vehicle division for selling stolen property.

The chief, Juan Jose Ribelli, is still being held on suspicions he provided Islamic terrorists with a stolen van used in the 1994 bombing of the Jewish cultural center in exchange for cash payments.

Six former Buenos Aires provincial policemen who had previously been held and released were taken into custody again Saturday for questioning on their possible connection to the van.

Collusion between military and civilian officials is also suspected by Argentine prosecutors in the illegal sale of arms to Ecuador and Croatia in the early 1990s. The sales to Croatia, which broke a U.N. embargo in the Balkans, included the diversion of 40,000 artillery shells from the Rio Tercero army ammunition plant.

The facility was destroyed in 1995 in a huge explosion that killed seven people and destroyed 4,000 homes.

President Carlos Saul Menem and military officials have long claimed it was an accident, but tests conducted two weeks ago under the supervision of government prosecutors indicated that the plant might have been destroyed in an attempted cover-up.

Since 1995, the case has led to the resignations of one defense minister and a former air force chief of staff. And a federal judge has asked Congress to impeach Foreign Minister Guido Di Tella on allegations he tried to cover up the sales. Di Tella has denied wrongdoing.

But it is the two bombings of Jewish targets here that have produced the greatest concerns about whether corrupt sectors of the security forces are working against the interests of the country for money.

The mysterious police cassette recording turned up Tuesday as the three officers who were on duty at the Israeli embassy the day of the bombing testified before a congressional committee. One of the officers said that his nephew, also an officer, obtained a copy of the tape at the police academy in 1994 during a training session on how to respond to catastrophic situations.

Interior Minister Carlos Corach promised that investigators would first establish whether the tape was authentic and then identify the officer who ordered the police to leave the embassy. So far, no one has been prosecuted for either of the two bombings of Jewish targets.

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