Workers uncovered more bodies Wednesday in the bomb-wrecked rubble of the Israeli Embassy, while a terrorist group in the Middle East claimed responsibility for the devastating attack.
In Beirut, a statement bearing the name of the pro-Iranian group Islamic Jihad (Islamic holy war) claimed responsibility for the bombing, which it said was a suicide attack carried out by an Argentine who had converted to Islam.
By nightfall, officials had confirmed 21 deaths from the Tuesday bombing. One official said 252 people were injured.
Alberto Bisordi, secretary of the Supreme Court, which is supervising the investigation, said six bodies were found Tuesday and 14 early Wednesday. Another body was recovered from the ruins in the afternoon. Workers continued searching into the night.
Late in the afternoon, Israeli Ambassador Itzhak Shefi visited the downtown embassy site and watched the digging for a few minutes. Grim-faced and tight-lipped, Shefi told reporters that five embassy employees were still missing but he gave no details. The ambassador was out of the embassy at the time of the blast.
The Islamic Jihad’s typed statement, delivered to a Western news agency, said the attack was “one of our continuing strikes against the criminal Israeli enemy in an open-ended war, which will not cease until Israel is wiped out of existence.”
Argentine President Carlos Saul Menem called the statement the “craziness of unbalanced, demented minds, of men who have not learned to live or coexist in peace.”
Menem added: “We are the recipients of a terrorist act in which, of course, Argentina has no part.”
He noted that Islamic Jihad is a pro-Iran group. But Iran’s embassy in Buenos Aires denied any Iranian link to the bombing.
On Tuesday, Menem had suggested that Argentine neo-Nazis or right-wing military men might have been involved in the bombing. On Wednesday, those possibilities appeared to have been discarded.
The Islamic Jihad statement said a Muslim convert called “Abu Yasser” carried out the bombing to avenge the deaths of Sheik Abbas Moussawi and his family in an Israeli air raid Feb. 16 in southern Lebanon. Moussawi, a Shiite Muslim leader, was believed to head Hezbollah, or Party of God, a pro-Iranian terrorist organization linked by experts to Islamic Jihad.
Islamic Jihad has been blamed for numerous hostage-takings and terrorist attacks, including the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut and bombings of the U.S. Embassy there in 1983 and 1984. Those bombings killed a total of more than 300 Americans.
“We hereby declare with all pride that the operation of the martyr infant Hussein is one of our continuing strikes against the criminal Israeli enemy in an open-ended war which will not cease until Israel is wiped out of existence,” the group’s statement said.
Hussein was Moussawi’s 5-year-old son, one of the victims of the Israeli air attack. His mother and four bodyguards were also killed.
The statement went on to praise the suicide bomber’s sacrifice. He “pounded like a bolt of lightning on a terrorist Zionist base in Argentina, obliterating it in a split second,” it said.
Argentine security officials were reported to be watching airports and border crossings closely for suspects trying to flee the country. Menem had said Tuesday that at his request, experts from the CIA and Israeli intelligence were helping in the investigation of the bombing.
In Washington, White House officials said Wednesday that they had received no formal request for such assistance. But White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater said that President Bush, in sending messages of condolence and concern to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir of Israel and President Menem on Tuesday night, had told both men that the United States “would do whatever it could to help bring those responsible to justice.”
Interior Minister Jose Luis Manzano said “there is nearly 100% certainty” that a car bomb with 220 pounds of TNT explosive blew up the embassy and badly damaged nearby buildings. He said it left a crater almost five feet deep and nine feet wide.
Manzano told Radio America of Buenos Aires that the car, a Ford Fairlane, was parked in front of the embassy’s steel gate.
It was Manzano who gave the figure of 252 persons wounded. Some were in serious condition in Buenos Aires hospitals.
While most of those killed were in the embassy, some were passersby and one was a priest at a Roman Catholic church across the street.
The Israeli dead included two identified as the wives of the embassy’s consul and first secretary. Kalman Sultanik, New York-based vice president of the World Jewish Congress, said the bodies of 11 Israelis were to be flown to Israel late Wednesday or early today.
Sultanik, who was visiting Argentina for the World Jewish Congress, said he blames “preachers of hate” as well as terrorists for the killings. “Those who incite them are as guilty as those who execute,” he said.
Manuel Tenenbaum, the Argentine-based Latin American director of the World Jewish Congress, said this country’s large Jewish community is in a state of shock.
“The community feels full of ire,” he said, “and also of terror, because it was thought that these things wouldn’t happen in Argentina.”
Classes were canceled in Jewish schools Wednesday. Many members of the community turned out for the funeral of an Argentine Jewish woman killed by the bomb.
“Everyone was crying,” Sultanik said.
Two newspapers speculated that Argentina might have been chosen for the bombing because Menem’s administration had sent two warships to the Persian Gulf to aid allied efforts against Iraq after it invaded Kuwait in August, 1990. But Foreign Minister Guido di Tella and Justice Minister Leon Arslanian rejected that theory.
“I don’t think this act is related to the foreign policy of the president,” Arslanian said. He added, however, that it was “plausible to suppose that it is related to the importance of the Jewish community in Argentina.”
With about 300,000 members, the Argentine Jewish community is the largest of any Latin American country.
During the day Wednesday, a rash of anonymous telephone calls warned of more bombings around Argentina, but no explosions were reported. Police provided special security measures for Jewish institutions.
Leaders of the Jewish community have scheduled a march for today in downtown Buenos Aires to repudiate the terrorist attack.
Times special correspondent Marilyn Raschka, in Beirut, contributed to this article.