Ressam Pleads Innocent

An Algerian accused of trying to smuggle nitroglycerin and other bomb-making materials into the United States from Canada pleaded innocent Wednesday to all five counts of a federal indictment.

Ahmed Ressam, 32, is accused of making false statements to U.S. customs officers; smuggling nitroglycerin across the border; transporting explosives; and possessing unregistered firearms the apparent timing devices found in Ressam's car. If convicted on all five counts, he could be sentenced to up to 40 years in prison and fined more than $1 million.

Ressam, speaking through an Arabic interpreter, answered affirmatively when U.S. District Judge John Weinberg asked him if he understood the charges and the meaning of his pleas.

Weinberg ordered Ressam to continue to be held without bail.

"There are no conditions that can be set than would ensure his appearance and the safety of the community," Weinberg said.

Ressam was stopped by U.S. Customs officers Dec. 14 after he took a ferry from Victoria, British Columbia, to Port Angeles, Wash., about 60 miles northwest of Seattle. Investigators have not said what Ressam's target might have been.

His arrest -- and the arrest of a second Algerian at the Canadian border in Vermont -- have stirred fears of terrorist attacks during the holidays and prompted warnings from the State Department that U.S. citizens abroad may be in danger.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Francis Diskin told the judge that material found in Ressam's car was sufficient to build a powerful bomb.

"This destructive device would easily have taken down a building," Diskin said.

Tom Hillier, Ressam's public defender, said the defense did not object to the terms laid down by Weinberg because there was nothing they could have presented to convince the judge otherwise.

The New York Times reported Wednesday that French officials believe Ressam has links to an Algerian terrorist group responsible for a number of bombings in France in 1996. The newspaper also reported that American officials have unconfirmed intelligence reports that Ressam was seen in Islamic fundamentalist training camps during the 1980s.

Law enforcement officials say they are searching for as many as three other people who may have ties to Ressam. The FBI on Wednesday asked the public for help identifying everyone who traveled on Ressam's ferry.

U.S. officials have tried to assure Americans they are doing all they can to prevent terrorist attacks over the holidays, including tightening security at airports and investigating whether there are any links between Ressam and suspected Saudi terrorist Osama bin Laden.

In Vermont, U.S. Border Patrol officers arrested an Algerian crossing into the United States with a falsified French passport Sunday at a remote border station at Beecher Falls. A Canadian woman was arrested with him.

Dogs sniffed traces of what may have been explosive in their car, but no bomb-making materials were found, federal agents said.

By Michael J. Martinez
©1999 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed