Argentinian Jews sad and wary at first anniversary of bombing

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BUENOS AIRES — In a sad and nervous mood, Argentine Jews anticipate the first anniversary of the bombing that gutted the Argentine Jewish Mutual Aid Association (AMIA).

On July 18, 1994, a powerful explosion destroyed AMIA's six-story main building on Pasteur Street in downtown Buenos Aires, killing 86 and wounding at least 300.

To mark the incident, Jewish community authorities will unveil a memorial monument at La Tablada cemetery, South America's largest Jewish graveyard, July 16. The memorial will stand near other monuments in the cemetery commemorating Holocaust victims and Warsaw Ghetto heroes.

Three major events are scheduled for the anniversary proper. At 9:50 a.m., the exact time of the explosion, a ceremony at the site on Pasteur Street will honor the dead and injured.

At 6 p.m., a demonstration will take place at a nearby square. All major Jewish organizations and groups as well as most Argentine political parties are calling on "all Argentines to attend and demand that justice be done."

Later that evening a memorial service will be held at the Liberty Street Synagogue, Buenos Aires' largest.

Dozens more events will mark the anniversary, as most Jewish community groups throughout the country are planning some form of commemoration.

But as the date approaches, Argentine Jews cannot hide a sense of despair and helplessness because an entire year's worth of investigation has yielded only three arrests and no conclusive explanation of the bombing.

President Carlos Menem's government has so far failed to get beyond accusing secondhand car dealer Carlos Alberto Telleldin of providing the van used as a car bomb, and arresting two of his business partners as alleged accomplices. These arrests occurred only recently, and reports of other arrests in the case remain unconfirmed.

Although Argentina denounced Iran as being behind the bombing and downgraded Argentine diplomatic representation in Teheran, Menem's government has not sustained the charges with any evidence.

The recent arrest of seven Lebanese nationals and a Brazilian citizen in Ciudad del Este, a notorious smuggling point in eastern Paraguay, has also not yielded any new information.

Paraguayan authorities have spent the last seven months considering Argentina's petition to extradite the eight suspects for interrogation.

Argentine Judge Roberto Marquevich accuses the Lebanese and the Brazilians of being linked to a neo-Nazi cell in Buenos Aires.

Marquevich has said there is evidence of "possible links between this cell and the AMIA bombing," but refused to discuss details.

The AMIA bombing was the worst attack in history against the 230,000-strong Argentine Jewish community.

In the wake of the attack, Jewish institutions, synagogues and schools have set up tight security systems including Belfast-style anti-car bomb concrete fences, closed-circuit TV cameras and private security personnel.

Behind bulletproof windows and reinforced concrete walls, Jewish life in Argentina has changed. Last year's AMIA bombing was not Buenos Aires' first episode of anti-Jewish terrorism. A bomb destroyed the Israeli embassy in 1992.

The haunting possibility of a third bombing in Buenos Aires makes Jews fear that their open and integrated way of life also died in last year's blast.

"It used to be that you did not feel different from other Argentines," said an Argentine Jewish woman, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"Most people still don't treat you any different on a personal level. But as a community, Jews are perceived by many as a potential problem," she said.

"People don't want to live near a Jewish institution, and we have metal detectors at my daughter's school. It is all very sad," she said.

Most Jews here agree that they do not fear fellow Argentines, and security measures are limited to community buildings, not private homes. Incidence of anti-Semitic acts has not risen during the past year.

But on the whole, Argentine Jews apparently do not trust that their government will solve the case and capture the bombers.

"The important issue is not to prove if Iran was or wasn't behind the bombing," said Horacio Lutzky, news director of Argentine Jewish cable TV station Alef Network and former editor of "Nueva Sion" (New Zion) magazine.

"What really matters is to find the local connection, those who provided intelligence, safe houses and support for the bombers," Lutzky said.

"I think they are former security agents that worked for Argentina's military dictators in the '70s and early '80s," he said. "They are torturers and fascists who keep up very good contacts in the police and security agencies. And, you know, fascists don't go after fascists."

Ruben Beraja, president of DAIA, the country's umbrella Jewish political organization, has so far not been openly critical of the government's handling of the case. But he, too, seems to be growing impatient.

In the past year, Beraja publicly spoke of "the importance of having our institutions doing their work, investigating and finding the culprits."

Beraja consistently refused to support those who hinted about the complicity of police and security agencies in the bombing.

"I know there are anti-Semites and people with Nazi sympathies in their ranks," he said recently, "but I think there are many other decent and law-abiding policemen and agents who want to solve the case."

But in a recent news conference, Beraja hinted he has changed his view.

"We were told that there will be major breakthroughs in the coming two or three months," he told an assembly of foreign and Argentine journalists.

"If that time goes by without further developments, we will denounce the situation here and abroad," Beraja warned.