BUENOS AIRES, March 18 (UPI) -- A wreath-laying ceremony took place Thursday at an empty lot in the center of Buenos Aires that marks the spot where the Israeli embassy was blown up by a truck bomb 12 years ago. Two years later, in 1994, a building housing the Argentine Israeli Mutual Association, known as AMIA, was also destroyed in an even worse bombing that killed more than 100 people.
Despite being the most deadly attacks allegedly carried out by Islamist extremists in Latin America, investigations into the incidents remain mired in political and diplomatic controversy amid accusations of a cover-up by Argentine and Iranian officials.
"God willing, these acts will never happen again," said President Nestor Kirchner, who compared the atrocities that shocked Argentina a decade ago to last week's horrifying train bombings in Spain. But Israel's ambassador to Buenos Aires, Benjamin Oron, questions the government's seriousness. He told reporters, "There are a lot of empty holes in the investigations" on the onslaught against the Argentine Jewish community.
"There is a lack of political will to investigate the case," said Marta Nercellas, a lawyer representing families of victims. While she said that Kirchner has been more cooperative in pursuing the investigations than previous presidents, "an official cover-up has been underway for the past 10 years" she claimed.
The case carries major international implications which touch on the highly sensitive relations between Argentina and Iran, whose officials are seriously implicated along with high-level members of Argentina's security services.
Police Chief Juan Jose Ribelli, who was a second in command of the Buenos Aires police force, is accused of taking a $2.5 million bribe for providing a van in which explosives were fixed by Hezbollah terrorists. He has just been brought to trial in the last few months. Lawyers allege that Ribelli has been protected by senior colleagues who have misled investigations, destroyed key evidence, and made witnesses disappear.
"It's now officially conceded that there was police involvement but the plot reaches much higher to the very top of the government," said Nercellas. She pointed to clues indicating at least passive participation by the national intelligence service or State Intelligence Secretariat, known as SIDE, and former President Carlos Menem who is currently under investigation on corruption charges.
Following the '92 bombing against the Israeli embassy, SIDE had much of the Hezbollah infrastructure in Buenos Aires under surveillance, according to intelligence files turned over to investigating attorneys. Key Iranian Embassy personnel, suspected militants and safe houses, including a meat warehouse, were being watched. Somehow, the targets were "lost" during a 24- to 48-hour period preceding the second attack on AMIA.
It's further alleged that Menem, took a $10 million bribe from Iran whose ambassador to Argentina at the time, Heine Soleimonpour, and other Iranian security and diplomatic officials figure on a list of 14 indictments issued by Argentine courts. Former Argentine Foreign Minister Carlos Ruckauf actually made a public apology to Iran when the indictment were announced in 2003. It's believed that he was under pressure from major food exporters to mend fences with Teheran.
"We are going to be able to prove that the Menem government obstructed investigations," said Nercellas, who bases her claims on testimony by a defector of Iran's intelligence service, Abolahem Mesbahi. He has worked with Germany's intelligence services, but is considered unreliable by U.S. counter-terrorist officials.
Mesbahi has said a close assistant to Menem attached to the Argentine Embassy in Teheran, George Ruben D'Ellis, acted as courier in negotiating the bribe which was deposited through accounts in Switzerland used by Iran's intelligence agencies to launder funds for extremist operations.
Menem, who now lives in Chile where he is avoiding court citations on other charges, strongly denies any wrongdoing. An Argentine security official who directed international operations for the Interior Ministry, Mario Baizan, told United Press International that the accusations are false.
"It's ridiculous to think that Menem would have implicated himself in international terrorism by taking a bribe from the Iranians. He was a close ally of the United States who cooperated very much against rogue governments such as Cuba," he said.
Baizan believes that the charges are a part of an effort to scapegoat the former president, possibly by corrupt elements within Argentina's security services who are trying to cover their own tracks.
D'Ellis was working for Yoma Karim, a powerful Arab-Argentine businessman who was selling submarine technology and enriched uranium to Iran, according to Baizan. Menem blocked those sales and froze relations with Teheran, he insists.
D'Ellis is not available to testify, having died in a mysterious car accident in Buenos Aires two years ago.
Cover-up efforts seem to have persisted until very recently. Late last year, British authorities detained Soleimonpour while he was passing through England. According to Argentine officials who participated in the negotiations to obtain his extradition, the British Home Office released the Iranian diplomat because Argentine judges would not move quickly enough with evidence to sustain charges.
The U.K. government may have also caved into pressure from Iran which threatened to attack British interests. The Foreign Office issued a travel alert for Argentina after specific threats were received by British Embassy in Buenos Aires while the diplomatic mission in Teheran was the target of a drive-by shooting during the time that Soleimonpour was held in London.
"For Iran, it's of vital importance to keep the lid on this case," said a counter-terrorism analyst. "Its full exposure would seriously compromise Iran's support for terrorist networks".
Imad Moughnieh who is accused of having arranged the logistics for the '94 attack in trips between Argentina and the tri-border region with Paraguay and Brazil, is allegedly one of Hezbollah's top operatives who is believed to be the main liaison with al-Qaida. According to officials involved in the investigations, Moughhieh arranged visits to Teheran by top al-Qaida leaders, including al-Zawahiri, a chief lieutenant of Osama bin Laden.
Teheran has rejected appeals by Argentine Foreign Minister Rafael Bielsa to arrange a trial for accused Iranian officials in a neutral country.
During last month's summit of G-15 Third World leaders hosted by President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, an expected meeting between Kirchner and Iranian President Jatami never took place.
According to reports in the Israeli press, Jatami called off the session because he did not want to discuss the Buenos Aires bombings.