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US Voices Concerns About Palestinian Trial - 2004-02-10

The State Department expressed deep concern Tuesday about what are seen as serious shortcomings in the trial of four Palestinians accused in connection with the deadly bombing of an American diplomatic convoy in Gaza last October. Officials in Washington say not all those responsible for killing three U.S. security guards may have been caught.

The attack on the American convoy, which killed three guards from the private U.S. security firm DynCorp, has been a source of serious friction between the Bush administration and the Palestinian Authority, which has not diminished despite the arrest and trial of four Palestinians said to have been involved.

The three Americans died and another was seriously wounded when a bomb was set off beneath their vehicle October 15 as they were escorting a U.S. diplomat to interviews in Gaza with Palestinian applicants for the Fulbright scholarship program.

The four men who went on trial in Gaza City Saturday, identified as members of a loosely-organized radical group called the Popular Resistance Committees, are charged not with murder, but with possessing explosives and planting mines on the convoy route.

A Palestinian prosecutor said the men had planted bombs intended for Israeli tanks entering Gaza. But U.S. officials have long maintained that the convoy from the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv had been deliberately targeted by a remote-control device.

At a news briefing here, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said U.S. officials are deeply concerned about the way the military trial has been organized and conducted, and do not believe it represents the genuine application of justice sought by the United States.

"We're worried about the closed nature of the trial," said Mr. Boucher. "But more than that, we're worried that they have not conducted a full, thorough and genuine investigation, that they've not necessarily found all the people who may have been involved. And that putting these people on trial in this setting doesn't really resolve the matter. It doesn't settle the issue of who killed the Americans, and whether they are being punished."

Mr. Boucher said there needs to be a full investigation that definitively resolves the killings and brings those responsible to justice. He said nothing short of that is really acceptable.

The attack has strained the already difficult relationship between the United States and the Palestinian Authority, whose officials have bristled at that they say has been U.S. pressure to pursue the case.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's security chief in the West Bank, Jibril Rajoub, last week accused the United States of "blackmailing" the Palestinian Authority by pressing other countries to withhold aid unless the case was solved.