updated 2/2/2004 6:19:20 PM ET 2004-02-02T23:19:20

The November 2002 car bombing of a resort hotel on the Kenyan coast was part of an elaborate al-Qaida plot, a prosecutor said as four suspects went on trial for murder Monday.

Al-Qaida has twice struck Kenya, and Monday’s trial, along with another trial of three other al-Qaida suspects on lesser charges, are the first attempts by authorities in the East African country to seek convictions against alleged terrorists.

Critics say the government’s apparent lack of hard evidence shows Kenya is only prosecuting the men to satisfy the United States, which has criticized the country’s anti-terror efforts.

On Monday, prosecutor Edwin Okello told the packed Nairobi High Court that witness testimony and physical evidence will clearly implicate the defendants.

The four Kenyan men first established ties with Osama bin Laden’s network in January 2002, Okello said in his opening statement.

'Communication' with al-Qaida alleged
The suspects had “frequent communication with network members,” he said, citing links between the defendants, the unidentified suicide bombers and Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, who is believed to be al-Qaida’s ringleader in eastern Africa and who remains at large.

To keep a low-profile in the Indian Ocean port of Mombasa where the attack was planned, the suspects “rented ... houses for short periods, moving from one house to another to avoid suspicion,” Okello said.

Omar Said Omar, Mohammed Ali Saleh Nabhan, Aboud Rogo Mohammed and Mohamed Kubwa have been charged with 15 counts of murder each for the Nov. 28, 2002, bombing of the Paradise Hotel north of Mombasa, an attack that killed 15 people, including three Israeli tourists.

Issa Kombo Issa, the first witness called Monday, testified he lost his national identity card in 1997.

Another witness, Reginald D’Souza, told the court that Omar rented a house from him in Mombasa from March 2002 until June 2002 using the same name, Issa Kombo Issa. Another man who identified himself as “Saleh” also lived in the house, D’Souza said.

'No tangible evidence,' defense says
Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, a Mombasa native, is believed to have helped build the bomb used in the hotel attack. He remains at large, but his brother is one of the defendants.

“The evidence presented by the prosecution does not link our clients to the actual terror attack,” Mohammed Nabhan’s lawyer, Kioko Kilukumi, said after the trial adjourned for the day. “The prosecution ... has no tangible evidence.”

Prosecutors have, however, amassed a wealth of circumstantial evidence linking the defendants to the attack, according to a review of pretrial statements by The Associated Press. There were frequent telephone calls among some of suspects and Fazul, who married a sister of one of the defendants.

About the same time the car bomb struck exploded, several men fired two surface-to-air missiles that missed an Israeli charter airliner taking off from Mombasa’s nearby airport.

Al-Qaida claimed responsibility for those attacks as well as for the August 1998 embassy bombings in Nairobi and in Dar es Salaam in neighboring Tanzania, which killed 231 people, including 12 Americans.

The other three Kenyan suspects are being tried on charges of conspiracy for their alleged roles in the hotel and embassy bombings, the attempt to shoot down the airliner, and an alleged plot last June to destroy the new U.S. Embassy in Nairobi.

The trial of the four men is expected to last at least a month. If convicted, they could face a death sentence.

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