Bombs Explode at 2 U.S. Embassies in Africa; Scores Dead
By William Claiborne
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 8, 1998; Page A01
Powerful terrorist car bombs exploded just minutes apart outside U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania yesterday, killing at least 81 people — including eight Americans — and injuring more than 1,600. With dozens more Kenyans possibly buried in the rubble of a building next to the embassy, authorities said they fear the death toll could rise much higher.
As U.S. disaster relief units and anti-terrorism specialists were rushed to the two East African capitals, President Clinton angrily vowed to bring justice to those who committed the “cowardly attacks.”
The slain Americans — including five embassy employees and a child — were among the 74 people killed in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, State Department officials said. Two of the Americans were identified as Arlene Kirk, 50, of South Bend, Ind., and Army Sgt. Kenneth R. Hobson II, 27, of Nevada, Mo.
Fourteen Americans were reported injured in the Nairobi blast, while five were listed as missing. The total number of injured was put at nearly 1,650.
In the blast outside the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam, the Tanzanian capital, officials said that at least seven people were killed and 72 injured — none of them Americans. U.S. authorities said the bombs exploded within five minutes of each other in cities approximately 450 miles apart and that the attacks were clearly coordinated.
There were no claims of responsibility by any previously known terrorist organization, although suspicion initially focused on an Egyptian branch of Islamic Jihad because of threats against American installations made earlier in the week.
The explosion in Nairobi, scene of the greater devastation, occurred at 10:35 a.m. (3:35 a.m. EDT) and collapsed the four-story Ufundi Cooperative Building next to the embassy, burying many Kenyans beneath the rubble.
State-run Kenyan television reported that police believe the blast originated in a van loaded with explosives that was parked in an alley at a rear corner of the embassy. They said they assume the bomb was intended for the embassy but that the Ufundi building, which housed numerous offices and a secretarial school, absorbed most of the shock. Authorities said damage to the embassy was confined largely to the rear and left side of the building.
Witnesses described gruesome scenes in the moments after the Nairobi blast: of passengers on a bus outside the embassy incinerated in their seats, of shattered cars smoldering in the street with passengers draped out the windows, of dazed and bleeding survivors lying on the ground pleading for help.
Rescue worker Emmanuel Campbell said injured Kenyans were walking around aimlessly, in shock, crying. He called it a “dreadful scene [with] dead people being removed from all over.”
Scores of people were cut by flying glass as the blast shattered windows in office buildings five blocks away. U.S. Ambassador Prudence Bushnell, who was in a building two doors away from the embassy, was slightly injured but soon was back at work, embassy officials said.
As night fell, rescue workers were frantically trying to dig their way into the rubble of the Ufundi building to reach people that authorities feared were trapped inside, possibly dozens.
Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi condemned the attack and said he would do everything possible “to bring the perpetrators of the heinous crime to book.” Among those injured in Nairobi was Kenyan Trade Minister Joseph Kamotho, whose office was next door to the Ufundi building.
In Dar es Salaam, the explosion destroyed the entrance to the embassy, blowing off a wall on the right side of the building, snapping trees like matchsticks and setting cars ablaze in a scene that witnesses said looked like a “war zone.” The nearby French and German embassies were damaged by the blast, but no one in either building was injured, authorities said.
U.S. Marines in camouflage fatigues, flak jackets and pistols in hand tried to maintain order among the crowds of Tanzanians that quickly gathered at the scene, cordoning off the area as they helped evacuate people from the building. Smoke rose over the compound’s buildings as cranes were rushed to the scene to tear apart collapsed walls in a desperate search for survivors.
One survivor, Amio Zara, told the Reuters news agency from her hospital bed that she was in the embassy’s visa section when “I heard a loud bang outside and immediately felt pain in my head. I tried to run downstairs, but the stairs had collapsed. . . . I saw smoke and fallen trees before I collapsed,” she said.
Embassy officials said the car carrying the bomb apparently had been parked in a lot adjacent to the embassy, which is situated near the Indian Ocean about two miles north of the center of the capital.
One U.S. official in Dar es Salaam said that the dead there included three Tanzanian guards and two locally hired embassy staff members. Although Kenyans and Tanzanians accounted for the vast majority of dead and injured in today’s attacks, the bombings together killed and injured more Americans than any terrorist attack on a U.S. installation abroad since a truck bomb exploded outside the Khobar Towers military housing complex near Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, on June 25, 1996, killing 19 Americans and injuring more than 500 U.S. servicemen and Saudis.
International terrorist attacks have been rare in Kenya and Tanzania, and both embassies had been considered relatively low-risk diplomatic stations, perhaps making them more attractive targets. In 1980, a bomb flattened the Norfolk Hotel in Nairobi, killing 20 people and injuring 80. Responsibility for the attack was claimed by an Arab group that said it was seeking retaliation for Kenya’s allowing Israeli troops to refuel in Nairobi during the raid on Entebbe Airport in Uganda four years earlier to rescue hostages from a hijacked aircraft.
National Security Council spokesman P.J. Crowley said the United States had already launched an investigation. “This appears to have been a very well-coordinated, very well-planned attack — clearly not the work of amateurs,” he said. The Defense Department said it had dispatched two special relief units to Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, including an interagency disaster response team from Ramstein Air Base in Germany and a medical assistance team from Andrews Air Force Base. Additionally, a 40-member Marine Corps anti-terrorism security team was on its way to East Africa, a Pentagon spokeswoman, Col. Nancy Burt, said.
The Fairfax County fire department’s urban search and rescue team was ordered to Nairobi to help find people killed and injured in the bombing. The 62-member team includes specialists in building collapses and cave-ins and planned to bring more than 27 tons of equipment, including listening devices and special rescue tools.
Clinton interrupted a bill-signing ceremony in the White House Rose Garden to condemn what he called “the cowardly attacks.” He vowed that the United States would bring the bombers to justice “no matter what or how long it takes.”
Clinton, who was awakened at 5:30 a.m. with news of the attacks, said: “These acts of terrorist violence are abhorrent. They are inhuman.” He said security had been tightened at U.S. installations around the world.
Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright rushed back to Washington from Italy, where she was to have attended the weekend wedding of her spokesman, James P. Rubin. She said in a statement that the administration will “spare no effort to use all means at our disposal to track down and punish the perpetrators of these outrageous acts.”
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan angrily described the blasts as “indiscriminate terrorism.”
On Capitol Hill, House Speaker Newt Gingrich said the bombings “should be a reminder to all of us that it is a dangerous world as we enter the 21st century. We need much better human intelligence, much more sophisticated efforts to go after terrorists and others.”
U.S. government officials, most of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, said the sophistication of the double attack, its reach across international borders and the lack of precedent in indigenous African political violence suggested that the motives and organization behind the bombers probably had “nothing to do with Africa,” as one official put it.
“We’re looking very heavily outside of Africa,” Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering said. “But we’re also looking inside because there are people inside of Africa who may be capable of doing this kind of thing.”
There were no immediate reports of evidence linking the attacks to any particular group. A reported claim of responsibility telephoned to the Arabic-language newspaper Al-Hayat in London cited a previously unknown group — the Liberation Army of the Islamic Sanctuaries. But it did not say where the group was based, describe its nature, or give the nationalities of its members.
As recently as Thursday, however, Egypt’s banned Islamic Jihad — a successor to the group that assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981 — was reported to have warned the same newspaper that it would retaliate against what it said was U.S. help in extraditing Islamic extremists to Cairo from Albania.
Al-Hayat, owned by Saudis and widely read throughout the Middle East, said that Islamic Jihad had vowed to strike against American interests because the United States had played a role in the extradition to Cairo from Albania of three of its members, including Ahmed Ibrahim Najjar, a Jihad leader who was condemned to death in absentia by an Egyptian military court for an attack on a Cairo tourist market.
The newspaper said the public affairs office of Islamic Jihad in Egypt warned in a communique it was preparing a response “in a language they [Americans] will understand.” The group is led by Iman Zowaheri, who is believed to live in Afghanistan.
When asked about the reported threat, Pickering said the State Department gets about 30,000 threats a year and treats them “all as extremely important.” He said he could not discuss specific groups that may have been behind the attacks.
On June 12, however, the State Department issued a notice warning that Osama bin Laden, a wealthy Saudi exile who has been linked to Zowaheri, had threatened in a May 26 statement that some kind of terrorist action could be mounted against American military or civilian targets. The department advised American travelers in the warning — dated to remain in effect until Aug. 31 — that it had received information “which indicates planning for an attack against Americans in the Persian Gulf.”
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company