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U.S. Probes 1997 Cuba Hotel Bombings

By ANITA SNOW
The Associated Press
Thursday, May 10, 2007; 7:58 PM

HAVANA -- The plastic explosives were smuggled in bottles of White Rain and Prell shampoo, and in the soles of a pair of black leather boots. Fixed to Casio digital clocks and 9-volt batteries with black adhesive tape, they became powerful bombs. Some of them never detonated, and are now on public display in Havana as part of what Cuba calls a wealth of evidence against Fidel Castro's archenemy, Luis Posada Carriles, in a string of 1997 bombings targeting Havana hotels.

While Cuba can't try Posada, who walks free in the United States after being cleared of immigration fraud charges this week by a Texas judge, a federal court in New Jersey just might.

A grand jury is meeting in Newark to decide whether to indict Posada on charges of financing a terrorist operation. FBI agents visited Havana last year in connection with the probe, following up on a 1998 trip to the island, according to two U.S. law enforcement officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the investigation.

"We've provided American authorities with a lot of information," said Cuban Lt. Col. Roberto Hernandez Cabellero. Visiting FBI agents deposed him during the 1998 trip, and while he said he had no information on more recent visits, he said U.S. prosecutors should have what they need.

Posada, 79, has never been tried for the 1997 hotel bombings, which killed an Italian tourist. In the 1980s, he was acquitted in Venezuela of the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 73 people, then escaped from prison while awaiting a retrial.

Although Venezuela still seeks his extradition in the plane bombing, a U.S. judge ruled he could not be sent there or to Cuba for fear he could be tortured.

He was detained in March 2005 on charges of lying to U.S. immigration officials, and was awaiting trial in Texas until a U.S. district judge dropped the charges Tuesday, accusing the U.S. government of "fraud, deceit and trickery" while trying to buy time for its investigation.

The ruling thrilled anti-Castro Cubans in Florida, and turned frustration among Cubans on the island into rage over the Americans' failure to indict Posada for terrorism. Cuba has called the U.S. government hypocritical for arresting alleged terrorists around the world while letting Posada go free.

"The prosecution never charged him for being what he is _ a terrorist," the Communist Party newspaper Granma declared.

But lawyers say there's a good chance that Posada will be tried in New Jersey.

"The (U.S.) government is working very hard on this," said Gilberto M. Garcia, the attorney for five New Jersey Cuban-Americans he described as potential witnesses. U.S. prosecutors, he said, are under tremendous pressure "to get him on something."

By his own admission, Posada has dedicated his life to Castro's downfall. He fled his native land after the 1959 revolution and trained alongside other exiles for the disastrous 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. He went to Venezuela in 1967, became a citizen and worked in the country's intelligence services.

After escaping a Venezuelan prison, he wound up in El Salvador where he took part in the Iran-Contra arms operation run by Lt. Col Oliver North.

Posada once acknowledged involvement in the Havana hotel bombings _ telling The New York Times that "we didn't want to hurt anybody" _ but now denies any link to those attacks or the jetliner explosion.

The federal probe in New Jersey has the most potential to put Posada behind bars in the United States.

"Follow the Newark grand jury," advised Phil Peters of the Lexington Institute, a pro-democracy think tank near Washington. "The immigration charges were always a sideshow," Peters wrote in his blog.

Justice Department officials won't discuss the secret proceedings. But in a 2005 affadavit, a Miami-based FBI agent said the Havana bombings probe turned up records detailing $19,000 in wire transfers from New Jersey to a "Ramon Medina" in Guatemala and El Salvador between 1996 and 1998. Posada has said he had a Salvadoran passport in that name.

During the 1999 Cuban trial of two Salvadorans in the bombings, prosecutors said Posada organized and financed the attacks, recruiting the bombers in Central America and paying about $4,500 for each mission. Both were given the death penalty, but were later spared and remain in prison.

Cuban-American members of Congress were furious when they learned the latest FBI visit to Cuba, complaining to the Justice Department that any evidence gathered by communist authorities would be suspect.

"By asking a state sponsor of terrorism for `evidence' regarding terrorism, the Bush administration Justice Department demonstrates a shockingly profound ignorance of the nature of terrorism, of its origins, and its state sponsors," Reps. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement.

___

Associated Press writer Curt Anderson contributed to this report from Miami.

© 2007 The Associated Press