MOMBASA, Kenya – Despite another group’s claims of responsibility for Thursday’s terrorist attacks on Israelis in Kenya, the African country’s defense ministry said Saturday it hadn’t ruled out links to Al Qaeda.
Kenyan investigators were looking at the possibility that the pair of simultaneous attacks — one at an Israeli-owned resort hotel that killed 13 people and the other on an Israeli passenger jet that failed to hit its target – had been carried out by Usama bin Laden’s notorious network.
Israel and the United States also suspect that Al Qaeda was responsible, even though an unknown group calling itself the Army of Palestine claimed it had been behind Thursday’s violence. Palestinian officials have denied any involvement by Palestinian groups.
"Kenya has been attacked by Al Qaeda (before) so we cannot rule them out," the Internal Security and Defense Minister Julius Sunkuli said, referring to the deadly 1998 attack on the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi. "Over the last six months, Kenyan investigators have been following certain leads, (but) not particularly this one."
Those leads concerned terrorism in general, not Al Qaeda specifically. Sunkuli also said those leads were not connected to an attack on Israelis.
Australia said it received information more than two weeks ago about terrorist threats in Mombasa. American officials said there were indications that American, British and Israeli citizens traveling abroad were facing greater danger.
In Washington initial suspicion about the Israeli-targeted attacks centered on two groups, Al Qaeda and al-Itihaad al-Islamiya, a Somali Islamic group suspected of having links to bin Laden's network, according to a U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity. The official said it also was possible the two groups had worked together on the plot.
Police have found the registration plate for the vehicle used in the suicide attack, but it is unclear who its owners are. There has been no progress tracing the vehicle used in the missile attack, although Kenyan officials believe it still is in the country.
"I'm happy with the way the investigation is going," Sunkuli said. "We are really trying to work hard to get more clues about the other car (that carried the missiles) because we don't think it has left Kenya."
Israeli investigators, assisted by Kenyan police, appeared to be doing most of the evidence-gathering. U.S. security officials also were participating.
In Israel, the Mossad spy agency was put in charge of investigating Thursday morning's attacks.
In the attacks Thursday, two shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles were launched against an Israeli charter jet leaving Mombasa airport. The shots narrowly missed the Arkia Airlines Boeing 757 carrying 261 passengers and 10 crew members. The jet landed safely in Tel Aviv, Israel, with no casualties.
A few minutes later, a vehicle packed with explosives broke through the gate at the oceanside Paradise Hotel. One attacker ran into the lobby and blew himself up, while two others exploded the vehicle. The bombs killed 10 Kenyans, three Israelis and the three bombers.
Police said it appeared the missiles were fired Thursday by someone standing in a grassy gulch across a two-lane highway from the airfield. A white, four-wheel-drive vehicle was parked at the spot about a mile from the airfield, they said.
Officials close to the investigation said it was likely the rockets were Russian-made Strelas. Sunkuli said the discarded missile launchers, which he said were originally olive green but had been painted blue by the terrorists, "most likely" were Russian, but could be German or American.
The Financial Times, whose reporter saw the missile launchers when police were showing them to Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi, said Saturday the serial number on one of them indicated they were manufactured by Zid or the V.A. Degtyarev weapons plant northeast of Moscow in March 1974.
A wide array of weapons is available in Somalia, which frequently has been cited by the United States as a possible terrorist haven. Al Qaeda has been blamed for the simultaneous 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, that killed 231 people — including 12 Americans — and wounded more than 5,000.
American officials said there were indications that American, British and Israeli citizens traveling abroad were facing greater danger.
The Mombasa hotel attack was a grim reminder of the bombing last month of a disco on the Indonesian resort island of Bali, in which more than 190 people, mostly foreign tourists, were killed.
Security officials Saturday were questioning 10 foreigners — six Pakistani men and four Somali men. Police released two other foreigners, Alicia Kalhammer, of Tallahassee, Fla., and Jose Tena, her Spanish husband, who were detained shortly after the attacks.
Kalhammer, 31, and Tena, 26, originally from Madrid, were picked up by Kenyan police about 90 minutes after the attack as they were about to leave the Le Soleil Beach Club, where they stayed for two nights. The hotel is a few miles from the Paradise Hotel.
"We just wanted to make sure we were safe. We decided because we had a rental car, we would leave," Kalhammer said. "We told them (police) we had nothing to with this."
Le Soleil also was full of Israeli guests, she added.
Kalhammer and Tena were interrogated separately three times by police in Mombasa. U.S. security officials visited them Friday but did not question them, she said.
"We were scared until the cavalry arrived," Kalhammer said, referring to the U.S. officials.
Deputy Police Commissioner William Langat said the Pakistanis and Somalis were detained Friday after arriving at Mombasa port Monday in a leaky boat. Police do not believe they left their dhow, a traditional wooden ship with a triangular sail, he said.
Police said earlier that the men had suspicious documents, but Sunkuli said not all of them were traveling on false passports.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.