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5 cleared of aiding Argentina bombing

Attack killed 85 at Jewish center

BUENOS AIRES -- A federal court acquitted five men yesterday of being accessories to the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center that killed 85 people, the deadliest terrorist attack on Argentine soil.

In a nationally televised verdict, a three-judge panel cleared four former provincial police officers and a former used car salesman accused of supplying the van used in the attack, which also injured about 300 people.

The verdict concluded a three-year trial -- the longest in Argentine history. The five were not accused of direct involvement in the bombing, but were charged as accomplices for their parts in a stolen car ring responsible for the sale and delivery of the van.

Prosecutors had sought life sentences; they had no immediate reaction to the verdict.

The rigged van exploded July 18, 1994, outside the Argentine Israeli Mutual Aid Association. The explosion leveled the seven-story building, a symbol of Argentina's 300,000-strong Jewish community, the largest in Latin America. The masterminds of the attack were never identified.

It was the second of two bombings targeting Jews in Argentina during the 1990s. A March 1992 blast destroyed the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 29 people in a case that remains unsolved.

Jewish and Argentine officials have charged the community center bombing was linked to Islamic fundamentalists and pro-Iranian terrorists, charges denied by Iran.

After failing to extradite Iranian suspects wanted in the case, investigators have instead focused on what has been called ''the local connection."

Legal specialists have described the trial as the longest in the country's history. More than 1,200 witnesses were summoned or submitted written testimony.

Jewish community leaders attended the trial in a packed federal courthouse in downtown Buenos Aires. It was tightly guarded by police and closed to the public.

Jewish groups have claimed the investigation was mishandled, pointing to a decision by judicial officials earlier this year to remove a judge who led much of the investigation after accusations surfaced that he bribed a key witness. At least two prosecutors also were removed for alleged irregularities.

Jewish community leaders have accused the courts, the police, and various Argentine governments of failing to carry out the investigation for fear it mightlead to embarrassing revelations.

Among those acquitted was Juan Jose Ribelli, a former Buenos Aires provincial police chief. He had been accused of leading a gang of former police officers accused of providing the van.

Carlos Alberto Telleldin, accused by investigators of being a dealer of stolen cars under Ribelli's protection, was also a key defendant. He was accused of delivering the stolen van to the police gang members eight days before the bombing.

The other defendants were Raul Ibarra, Anastasio Leal, and Mario Bareiro.

Hoping to give new impetus to the trial, President Nestor Kirchner last year signed decrees opening secret intelligence documents and ordering intelligence agents to testify about what they know about the bombings.

Jewish leaders had hailed the decision, saying it was the first step in years the Argentine government had taken to get to the bottom of the decade-old case.

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