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Terrorism court hears of US embassy carnage

October 14, 2010

Grown men wept and a US Marines sergeant recalled being blown off his feet as they testified Wednesday in New York about the bombing of two US embassies at the center of a high-profile terrorism trial.

A day of dramatic of testimony recreated for the jury of 12 New Yorkers the terrifying moment at 10:30 am on Friday, August 7, 1998, when truck bombs slammed almost simultaneously into the US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, killing 224 people and wounding thousands.

"I remember saying a short prayer. I said 'God, please help me,'" locally hired Nairobi embassy worker George Mimba told the court, as he recounted the minutes after the bomb. "I knew my time was up."

Accused in the Al-Qaeda plot to destroy the embassies in eastern Africa is Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a slightly-built Tanzanian in his mid-30s, who faces 286 criminal counts including murder and conspiring to use weapons of mass destruction.

The defendant, described by lawyers as an innocent man merely acquainted with the plotters, showed no reaction to the horrific testimony, which included pictures of bloodied bodies and devastated buildings.

Dressed smartly in a light blue V-neck sweater, white shirt and tie, the boyish-faced Ghailani was relaxed enough to chat and joke with his lawyers during breaks.

Prosecutors are trying to prove Ghailani is no innocent, but a cold-blooded member of an Al-Qaeda cell that took orders from Osama bin Laden himself.

They are under pressure to succeed: this is the first civilian trial for someone previously held in the legal limbo of Guantanamo and therefore is a test of President Barack Obama's desire to move prisoners out of the controversial US military prison and into the civilian justice system.

Setting the stage for what will likely be a marathon trial, prosecutors called one witness after the other to describe the horror of the bombings.

Mimba, 44, remembered thinking there had been an earthquake, then finding himself in a dark, burning building.

Sure he was about to die, but afraid he would be burned beyond recognition, he dragged himself to a smashed wall and jumped one storey to the ground.

"I wanted to have my body found, so my father can know it was me," he said. "So I closed my eyes and threw myself out."

Once revived, he returned to the building repeatedly to try and rescue colleagues.

Edward Rutahesherwa, a guard at the Dar-es-Salaam embassy, where Ghailani is alleged to have helped set up the truck bomb, also wept as prosecutors showed him the remains of an ID card belonging to a colleague he'd found mortally wounded that day.

"I found him with a piece of metal rod in the side of his head and part of his leg dangling," he recalled. "He was asking for help."

Witnesses who were alive to testify in the trial all had lucky escapes on that day.

Brian Johnson, a US Marines guard at the Tanzania embassy, happened to be in the bathroom when the truck bomb hit.

"I was knocked off my feet," he said. "Here I am, flying through the air. Everything slowed down. It felt like a very long time, but it was probably a second."

In true military spirit, he says his first action on picking himself up was to smooth his uniform. "Reflexively I checked my image in the mirror," he said. "They always told us in school we were representatives of the government, ambassadors in blue."

Soon, such niceties were forgotten as he crawled over rubble to reach his now destroyed post and help lead survivors out, his shotgun at the ready.

Demonstrating to the court, Johnson, now a sergeant but then a corporal who'd just started his first embassy guard posting, swung his arms across the courtroom to imitate the firing stance he adopted as he exited the building. "I had to assume we were being attacked," he said.

Ghailani is accused of buying the truck and explosives used in the Tanzania bombing, as well as being part of the same cell that organized the Kenya assault.

His lawyers say that only his friends were involved with radical Islamic groups and that Ghailani had no idea what they were up to when he made what appeared to be regular purchases for them.

Arrested in Pakistan in 2004, Ghailani is to date the sole inmate of the Guantanamo Bay facility to have been transferred into the civilian US system.

He was also subjected to what the government calls "enhanced interrogation" at CIA secret prisons, or what his own lawyers call torture.

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