Probers Focus on Tanzania Truck Shop
By T. R. Reid
But the unlikely industrial facility set amid banana palms on the outskirts of Dar es Salaam has drawn far more attention than usual lately -- this time, from Tanzanian and American investigators trying to unravel the mysteries surrounding the terrorist bomb that heavily damaged the U.S. Embassy here on Aug. 7 and killed 10 people.
U.S. officials say investigators are working on a theory that the bomb may have been constructed at the Tommy Spades plant and then welded to the chassis of the embassy's water truck, which reportedly was at the plant for repairs shortly before the explosion.
The owner of the plant, Thomas A. Lyimo, is one of five people jailed here in connection with the blast, officials said. Among the many gas and chemical canisters in the Tommy Spades facility, investigators found some of the same chemicals that were detected in the large crater the bomb left outside the U.S. Embassy.
The discoveries may explain why Tanzanian and FBI investigators last weekend announced major breakthroughs in the bombing probe here. Adadi Rajabu, Tanzania's director of criminal investigation, said that police "know who took the device to the embassy, and they also know some of the people responsible for the event."
One key mystery remains unsolved, though. There is still no trace of the assistant driver, or "turnboy," who should have been riding in the water truck when it was blown up, along with the driver. The assistant's family has declined to cooperate with investigators, refusing to provide DNA samples or to look over shoes and clothing found at the bombing site to determine whether they might have belonged to him.
"It just might be that in their grief, the family refuses to admit the possibility that the guy is dead," a U.S. official said. "Or maybe he wasn't in the truck, which makes you wonder where he was" when the bomb went off.
Since the early days of the massive investigation into the simultaneous bombings at the U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam and in Nairobi, the capital of neighboring Kenya, U.S. and local officials have focused on that embassy-owned water tank truck as a possible carrier of the bomb here.
As with many aspects of daily life in a country that is poor even by African standards -- per capita income is less than $500 a year -- the water supply in Tanzania's capital can be unreliable. To be a good neighbor, the U.S. Embassy routinely filled its tanker truck with fresh water from wells on the embassy grounds and delivered it to nearby embassies and homes.
On Aug. 7, the tanker had finished its rounds and pulled up to the embassy gate at about 10:35 a.m. At 10:39, while guards were making a standard security check of the truck, a massive explosion blew most of it to bits. A large crater was left where the truck had stood.
Security officials said countless parts of the tanker truck were found on the spot. About 22 cars along the street also were destroyed; all have been traced to their owners, mostly embassy workers. There has been no evidence that other vehicles were involved in the bombing. All of this suggests that the tanker truck might have been the carrier for the bomb. But that raises a further question: How was a terrorist bomb hidden on a U.S.-owned truck?
The investigations at Lyimo's Tommy Spades compound may provide some answers. Lyimo is a member of the Chaga tribe, an ethnic group that has produced many of Tanzania's business and political leaders. He reportedly owns a chain of roadside kiosks that sell milk and other essentials around the eastern part of the country. But his biggest operation is said to be the truck facility, which towers above a narrow, rutted road here in Kimara, on the northwest side of Dar es Salaam.
The plant includes a repair unit as big as an aircraft hangar, which was filled today with large tanker trucks, much like the one that served the embassy. Connected to the repair bay is the Tommy Spades factory, which builds large metal tanks for water, gasoline and other liquids. The factory is equipped with modern metal cutters, rollers and other machine tools made in Germany and Italy and has extensive welding facilities.
Workers at the compound -- who seemed convinced that a visiting reporter was an FBI investigator -- said Lyimo has not been seen here in days. Local media reported that he has been in police custody for about two weeks. Tanzanian police said last weekend that they are holding five people in connection with the bombing -- two suspects and three others who are said to be material witnesses.
The embassy water truck underwent maintenance shortly before the bombing, and U.S. officials and local media reports say it was conducted at the Tommy Spades repair garage, which is apparently the premier facility in the capital region for the repair of big tankers.
However, embassy officials say the truck's maintenance records were destroyed in the bombing. Since the driver was killed and his assistant has not been found, there may be no embassy employee who can confirm that the truck was at the Tommy Spades facility. It is unclear whether the repair shop kept records of its own.
The Washington Post reported Sunday that the FBI suspects the explosive material for the Nairobi and Dar es Salaam bombs came from the Middle East and was shipped to the Comoros Islands, in the Indian Ocean about 180 miles off the east African coast. The explosives may then have been shipped by small boat to a landing north of Dar es Salaam and trucked to Nairobi and the truck repair plant here.
U.S. officials have accused Osama bin Laden, an exiled Saudi financier, of masterminding the bombings. Two suspects with alleged ties to bin Laden are being held in New York on charges stemming from the Nairobi bombing.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company