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Government drops bin Laden blame for U.S. soldier deaths

James Yacone
Former helicopter pilot James Yacone: "I am not really sure who was training Aidid's group."  

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Federal prosecutors Thursday abandoned their contention that Saudi exile Osama bin Laden is directly to blame for the deaths of 18 U.S. soldiers in an October 1993 battle in Mogadishu, Somalia.

U.S. District Judge Leonard Sand then agreed to a defense motion to strike the entire testimony -- heard by the jury on Monday -- of a former U.S. Army helicopter pilot who gave a detailed account of the battle and the men killed in it.

The government agreed to take out the Somalia allegation during a discussion of how to simplify the charges the jury will deliberate in the trial of four men accused of being part of a conspiracy, led by bin Laden, to kill Americans. Sand is finalizing his instructions to the jury because the trial is on pace for closing arguments to begin next week.

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Army helicopter pilot's testimony about Somalia battle
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The Somalia deaths have long been part of the conspiracy allegations that underlie the trial, which has been under way in Sand's court since January. The most egregious allegations are the dual bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania on August 7, 1998, that killed 224 people, including 12 Americans.

The defendants are accused of belonging to or working with al Qaeda, an Islamic militant group led by bin Laden that is blamed for the embassy bombings -- and is still blamed for training the Somali tribesman who battled U.S. troops.

Only one trial defendant, Mohamed Sadeek Odeh, is accused of being among the al Qaeda members who conducted that training.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald conceded that the government's case was not that "an al Qaeda member pulled the trigger" or that "this soldier was killed by al Qaeda."

But Fitzgerald said the government still held that al Qaeda was responsible for training Somalis, especially teaching them to fire the rocket-propelled grenades, or RPGs, that shot down U.S. Black Hawk helicopters in Mogadishu, causing most of the American casualties.

"That's a technique they developed in Afghanistan," Fitzgerald said, referring to experience bin Laden and like-minded Muslims obtained fighting with the Afghan mujahadeen to expel Soviet occupation troops in the 1980s.

Retired U.S. Army Capt. James Yacone, the platoon leader who piloted a Black Hawk on October 3, 1993, was the only government witness to describe the Mogadishu confrontation to the jury. No forensic evidence supported the notion that the al Qaeda members physically carried out the attack, and none of the trial defendants were ever accused of participating in it.

Yacone testified that intercepts of enemy radio transmissions in Arabic indicated outsiders may have been involved. But Arabic is the second language of Somalia and is commonly spoken among Somalis in the military.

burning vehicle
This was the scene October 3, 1993, when 18 U.S. soldiers were killed in a firefight with Somali fighters.  

Two government witnesses, both defectors from al Qaeda, have testified that they heard about members going to Somalia, including bin Laden's military commander, who bragged about being responsible for the U.S. deaths. Bin Laden himself issued statements that the U.S. forces should be forced to leave Somalia, a predominately Muslim nation, according to testimony.

Defense attorneys had portrayed the alleged Somalia-al Qaeda link as prosecutorial overreaching backed by little more than hearsay. They argued that once the government deleted the allegation related to the killing of 18 servicemen, the court should drop the testimony that supported it. Sand agreed.

The U.S. troops had been deployed in 1992 to assist a U.N. mission distributing supplies and restoring order to the war-torn nation. By mid-1993, the troops sought to arrest Somali warlord Mohamed Fararah Aidid and his men for killing peacekeepers. The ill-fated October 3 mission began as an operation to abduct two of Aidid's top lieutenants.

Fitzgerald told the court that with the testimony of the battle stricken from the record, the government may bring testimony about a 1992 bombing in Yemen in an attempt to link al Qaeda to attempts to kill Americans in Somalia.

Fitzgerald said a witness could testify that bin Laden's group was responsible for two December 29, 1992, bombs at hotels where U.S. Marines en route to Mogadishu were staying. Those bombs killed one person and injured eight, but did not hurt U.S. personnel.

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U.S. State Department
 •  International Information Programs:
 •  Counterterrorism
 •  Links to United States Embassies and Consulates Worldwide
Patterns of Global Terrorism: 1999
FBI Websites Document Evidence Against Bin Laden
Ussamah Bin Laden
US District Court, Southern District of New York
Terrorism Research Center

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