Evidence of Anthrax Found on Letter To New York Times Bureau in Rio

By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 20, 2001

BUENOS AIRES, Oct. 19 -- A letter sent to the New York Times office in Rio de Janeiro and a travel brochure sent to a family in Buenos Aires -- both with U.S. postmarks -- have tested positive for anthrax, the American newspaper and Argentine health officials said today.

The health authorities in Argentina said late tonight the existence of anthrax was confirmed in a second, more comprehensive test of the brochure, which was in an envelope with a Miami postmark. The letter to the Times, however, was undergoing further tests to conclusively determine the presence of the bacteria.

The results came one day after Kenya became the first country outside the United States to confirm an anthrax infection, when health officials said a letter sent to a Nairobi businessman tested positive for the bacteria.

Health authorities at the Oswaldo Cruz research institute in Rio told the New York Times today that initial tests detected anthrax in a fine powder contained in an envelope received by the bureau on Tuesday.

The Times turned over the unopened, oversize envelope because it seemed "unusual," said Larry Rohter, the paper's correspondent in Rio. The letter had an Oct. 5 postmark from New York City, but no return address -- one of the warning signs in the newspaper's recently issued checklist for employees opening mail, Rohter said.

"There was just something about it that seemed strange," Rohter said in a telephone interview. "It was a surprise piece of mail. . . . It was oversize, with an almost cardboard-like envelope, and it didn't have a return address."

The Times said in a statement that all four employees in the Rio bureau have been tested for anthrax and have been given antibiotics. Test results on the employees have not yet been received.

It was unclear why the Rio office was targeted. Rohter is one of several journalists who have recently written stories outlining U.S. suspicions of Islamic terrorist activity in the area where the borders of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay meet.

In Buenos Aires, health officials said a travel agency brochure tested positive in an initial test yesterday and the more comprehensive test today. Health authorities said the brochure appeared to have been soaked in a liquid that contained anthrax.

Officials said six people had come in contact with the letter, but none had tested positive for exposure to anthrax so far. Argentine authorities declined to identify the recipient of the letter, but local media reported it was a family in the outskirts of Buenos Aires. With fear gripping Argentina and much of Latin America following the reports of anthrax in the United States, the family, which reportedly had rarely received mail from the United States, took the letter to a police station last week.

The letter was the only one of more than 300 pieces of mail checked so far by health officials in Argentina to test positive for anthrax, but officials at the research institute said there was a backlog of more than 600 pieces waiting to be checked. Health Minister Hector Lombardo stressed that none of the people who had come in contact with the letter showed symptoms of the disease.

"Apparently this is a worldwide attack," Lombardo said. "We think that we are prepared to handle this, however, and we will take the steps we need to contain the situation." He said the Argentine military and post office were put on high alert and were inspecting mail across the nation.

Although fear of anthrax is sweeping the world, it has reached epic proportions in Argentina. This afternoon, a library in the Buenos Aires suburb of La Plata was evacuated after a woman fell after opening her telephone bill. On Thursday, a Citibank branch temporarily closed after receiving a package containing a white powder, and authorities today were still examining an airplane in the western city of Mendoza after a "suspicious substance" was found by cleaners this morning.

Buildings in Britain, Peru, Fiji, Germany and the Netherlands were evacuated as suspicious mail was rushed for tests, news agencies reported. A local man tested negative for anthrax at the British Embassy in Pakistan, the first scare in a country that has faced violent protests for its support of the U.S.-led airstrikes on Afghanistan.

The British Parliament delayed its opening by an hour after a package containing white powder was found in the House of Commons.

In The Hague and Berlin, the offices of the Dutch prime minister and the German chancellor were evacuated for two hours to investigate envelopes containing white powder.

Angered by a flood of hoax letters about anthrax, French courts have sent people to jail or fined them heavily in an attempt to stem disruption caused by pranksters and cranks, including a 50-year-old man who sent confectioner's sugar to a direct mail company that was pestering him. The owners of an Alpine mountain restaurant were also punished -- for sending flour to the local mayor for halting a ski lift that had brought people to their doorstep.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company