As flags flew at half-staff across the country, a nationwide manhunt was launched Thursday for two men who allegedly rented the truck used to blast the federal building in Oklahoma City in the deadliest bombing in U.S. history.
U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno said Thursday the government is offering a $2 million reward for information leading to arrests and convictions.
Meanwhile, rescuers continued to probe the wreckage for survivors, and deaths climbed to 52 - with expectations that they would exceed 200. More than 400 were injured in the blast. Twelve of the dead were children.
President Clinton, using ever harsher words about the bombers, portrayed their deed as a threat to national security. “Make no mistake about it,” he told a news conference in the White House Rose Garden. “This was an attack on the United States, our way of life and everything we believe in.” He further tightened security in federal buildings.
At a news conference here Thursday, FBI special agent Weldon Kennedy released descriptions and composite sketches of the two white men suspected of renting the truck. He said they are considered armed and dangerous and have not yet been identified.
But a knowledgeable counterterrorism source told Newsday that authorities know the identity of the men and have linked both to narcotics investigations.
Privately, authorities told reporters that three other men had been detained for questioning. The three - including a New York City cabdriver - were among a number of people listed by the Justice Department as possible suspects, but later cleared, in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, law enforcement sources said.
The FBI said the two men being sought had rented a 20-foot-long Ryder truck in Junction City, Kan. The truck reportedly was spotted parked in front of the federal building in Oklahoma City moments before the 9:05 a.m. blast.
Arrest warrants have been issued for the two men, who used false names when they rented the truck Monday.
Law enforcement sources told Newsday that those two really are the only two suspects now. The detention of the three other men, they said, is part of a larger investigation into terrorism in the United States.
The detentions are meant to send a message that U.S. authorities will not tolerate anyone who promotes terrorism or dabbles in extremism, said the sources. They added that the investigation into the bombing is focusing on some foreign leads that they are not prepared to discuss.
“Anyone out there who even looks suspicious is under investigation now,” said one source. “We don’t believe this was purely a homespun American act.”
However, another law enforcement source said federal agents are focusing part of their investigation on the New York cabdriver the source identified as Asad Rahman Siddiqy. A neighbor said Siddiqy came to the United States in 1990 from Lahore, Pakistan.
Siddiqy represents “a significant part” of the investigation, said the source, who declined to provide further specifics.
The cabbie was one of three men detained - two in Dallas and one in Oklahoma City - for questioning in connection with the bombing. The men had stopped to ask an Oklahoma Highway Patrol officer for directions Wednesday. The officer, suspicious of the men, wrote down their car’s license plate number, which turned out to be registered to a rental car and not the vehicle they were driving.
A fourth man being detained is a Jordanian-American identified as “a possible witness” to the bombing.
The man, who was flying from Oklahoma City to Jordan, was questioned by British immigration officials at London’s Heathrow Airport, briefly detained and then flown to the United States to speak with federal officials.
FBI officials said they are not sure if the man had any involvement in the attack. “He may have fit the profile (of suspected perpetrators) and people jumped to conclusions,” one official said.
“We are bringing back to the United States an individual we believe to be a witness,” Justice Department spokesman John Russell told reporters.
A U.S. counterterrorism official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the man was held by London authorities because of “some incriminating stuff” found in his luggage, which had gone on to Rome.
The source said the materials had gone unnoticed at the airport in Chicago, where the man had boarded. Italian officials told The Associated Press that the man’s three duffel bags contained electrical tape, silicone, a hammer, tweezers and a photograph album with pictures of missiles and other weapons.
During Thursday’s news conference, Kennedy told reporters that investigators had identified the vehicle used in connection with Wednesday’s attack and that the men being sought were “associated with this vehicle.” He said the two suspects would be referred to for now as “John Does.”
Authorities traced the truck to Junction City after finding pieces of the truck some 200 yards from ground zero. Reportedly, a video camera at an automatic banking machine had taped the truck parked near the building before the explosion.
The Ryder truck was rented at Elliott’s Body Shop near Interstate 70 in Junction City, a military town of about 20,000. Investigators had begun to focus on Junction City Ryder dealers as early as Wednesday evening. Officials from Ryder’s corporate headquarters in Miami then flew to Kansas.
A rented Ryder truck also was used in the Feb. 26, 1993, World Trade Center bombing, which killed six people and injured 1,000.
The latest disclosures appeared to contradict earlier reports that the suspects in Wednesday’s bombing were of Middle Eastern descent.
But when asked whether the description of the suspects as white would rule out the possibility that the men were of “Middle Eastern appearance,” Kennedy said: “It does not. … The description we have is certainly very vague right now.”
ABC quoted law enforcement sources as saying that the FBI got its first big break by using a video taken by a surveillance camera near the federal building. Using photo-enhancement techniques, agents were able to see part of the truck parked in front of the building and identify it as a Ryder rental truck.
An axle thought to have come from the vehicle was found about two blocks away, said a police source who spoke on condition of anonymity. Major auto parts are marked with an ID number to thwart thieves. Two years ago, the vehicle ID number on a piece of axle enabled investigators to break the World Trade Center bombing case.