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4 guilty in '86 Berlin disco bombing

A Berlin court sentenced four people to prison Tuesday in the 1986 disco bombing that killed three people, including two U.S. soldiers, and prompted President Ronald Reagan to order airstrikes against two Libyan cities, killing 31.

But the judges ruled that prosecutors had failed to prove that Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi ordered the blast, though they did rule that the plot was planned and executed by members of the Libyan secret service working in the country's former East German embassy.

Five people were charged with three counts of murder and 103 counts of attempted murder in the bombing of the La Belle discotheque, a popular nightspot for American soldiers. Prosecutors had asked for life sentences for four of them.

Only one defendant was found guilty of murder _ Verena Chanaa, 42, who left the bomb by the edge of the dance floor. She was sentenced to 14 years.

Three other defendants were convicted of attempted murder. Chanaa's Lebanese-born ex-husband, Ali, 42, received a 12-year term, as did Musbah Abulghasem Eter, a 44-year-old Libyan. Both men worked at the former Libyan Embassy in East Berlin with Yassir Chraidi, a Palestinian who prosecutors said organized the bombing and who was sentenced to 14 years.

Prosecutors had asked that a fifth defendant, Andrea Haeusler, 36, be acquitted because of a lack of evidence. She was found not guilty.

More than 150 people packed the high-security courtroom for the last day of the four-year trial, including many former U.S. servicemen and the father of Sgt. Kenneth Ford, 22, who was killed in the blast.

"They took my son from me, and no verdict can replace that for me," said Ford's father, Larry Beecham.

Heino Moehring, a waiter who was badly burned by the explosion, told ZDF television that the sentences were far too light. "I'm outraged," he said. "One even got acquitted, and is entitled to government compensation for the time she was detained _ a government compensation the victims didn't get."

The bomb went off shortly before 1:50 a.m. on April 5, 1986, back when West Berlin was still protected by U.S., British and French forces 110 miles behind the Iron Curtain. American soldiers attached to the Berlin Brigade were known to unwind at the discotheque in the city's southwest sector.

Ford was killed instantly, as was his Turkish girlfriend, Nermine Henay, 27. Two months later, Sgt. James E. Goins, 26, of Ellerbee, N.C., also died. Goins' widow flew in for the verdict.

Even before the bomb exploded, U.S. intelligence was eyeing Libya, which had been growing more bellicose in its relationship with Washington. The Reagan administration believed the Libyan-based Abu Nidal terrorist organization was behind December 1985 terrorist attacks on airports in Rome and Vienna, Austria. In March, the Libyans had fired at American aircraft carriers during exercises in disputed waters of the Gulf of Sidra. The United States retaliated by sinking two Libyan patrol boats and attacking a radar station.

On March 25, the U.S. National Security Agency intercepted messages to Libyan People's Bureaus in East Berlin and six other European capitals ordering them to plan terrorist attacks against U.S. military installations and civilian targets frequented by Americans.

Late on April 4, American surveillance picked up a message from the Libyan People's Bureau in East Berlin to headquarters in Tripoli, saying they would be happy with the next day's headlines. A few hours later, the United States intercepted a second message for Tripoli reporting that the act was a success "without leaving a trace behind."

The German case did not take shape until after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 freed the files of the Stasi, the East German secret police. In 1996 German officials met secretly in Malta with Eter, who confessed his role and implicated the others. In Ali Chanaa's later statement, he described a moment before the bombing when Eter turned to him with a grin, a dark handbag hanging between them, and said, "This is the reply to the Americans, a present of Gadhafi to Reagan."

The chief prosecutor had said that proving Libya's support of terrorism would strengthen backing for the American-led war against terrorism. A rehabilitation-minded Libya has offered to help in that war, and is helping Germany try to free four aid workers whom Islamic extremists are holding in Afghanistan.