WASHINGTON (Mar. 9)
Unidentified gunmen seized the B’nai B’rith national headquarters building near the center of Washington today, the Islamic Center, about a mile away, and the District Building (City Hall) taking hostages at each site and leaving a trail of bloodshed which resulted in numerous injuries and one death.
Four gunmen carrying weapons in violin and guitar cases, stormed the B’nai B’rith headquarters at about 11 a.m. and, according to latest reports, were holding between 50-100 hostages in the upper stories of the building. Ten injured hostages were released later. Four were rushed to George Washington Hospital and seven were treated at the nearby Gramercy Hotel.
The four, who were not immediately identified, were said to include one with a gunshot wound in the head, one with a stab wound, one who was pistol-whipped and another who suffered an apparent heart attack. At least two hostages seriously injured at the District Building were identified as a security guard and Councilman Marion Barry. According to a confirmed report, one has died.
B’nai B’rith President David M. Blumberg and the organization’s new executive director, Daniel Thursz, left a meeting of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations with Israeli Premier Yitzhak Rabin when news of the assault was received and rushed to the B’nai B’rith headquarters site. Mrs. Betty Shapiro, past president of the B’nai B’rith Women’s organization was also at the scene.
Police believe that the seizures of the B’nai B’rith building and the Islamic Center, two blocks from the Israeli Embassy, may be related but they have determined no link yet with the District Building seizure.
OBJECT TO FILM ABOUT MOHAMMAD
According to police, the gunmen may belong to the Hanafi Moslems, an offshoot of the Black Muslim sect. They are not known to have made any demands but hostages who have been released from the B’nai B’rith building indicated that their rampage was over objections to the film “Mohammad–Messenger of God,” a United Artists release that opened in several cities today.
One freed hostage reportedly said one of his captors had threatened “we will kill people” who see the movie. (United Artists announced today that it was withdrawing the film, a lavish production reportedly financed by Middle Eastern Arab interests. The Rivoli Theater on Broadway in the Times Square district of Manhattan, where the film opened, was evacuated and patrons, protected by heavy police cordons, lined up at the box-office to receive refunds.) It was reported that Washington police asked United Artists to withdraw the film.
Thursz told a Jewish Telegraphic Agency reporter late today that there are at least 100 hostages on the eighth floor of the B’nai B’rith building and perhaps as many as 30 others have hidden themselves in the building. He said the staff consists of 150-160 people, besides construction workers at the site. Thuraz said that “to the best of my knowledge everybody is safe at this point.” He said the staff includes Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Blacks and Orientals. “I have no idea why they picked on B’nai B’rith.” Thursz said of the gunmen. He said police were negotiating with them and the only demand they made was that the movie be stopped.
HERDED TO THE EIGHTH FLOOR
It was reported that the gunmen at the B’nai B’rith building went from office to office removing personnel and herding them to the eighth floor of the building. The personnel were each questioned by the gunmen but there was no immediate indication of what the questioning was about. People in the building were reportedly ordered to paint the windows with opaque color so that the gunmen could not be seen from outside.
It was impossible throughout the day to reach the B’nai B’rith building by telephone. Calls made from the B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation League in New York using the private wire and the JTA on the regular number were unanswered.
The B’nai B’rith headquarters, about seven blocks from the White House, houses the agency’s national headquarters, the ADL, the B’nai B’rith Women’s offices and the B’nai B’rith Jewish Museum. Traffic was barred within a three-mile radius of the building. Scores of police vehicles, fire engines and ambulances were in the vicinity of the building and police helicopters hovered overhead. The police bomb squad was also called but its purpose was not immediately known. Police sharpshooters were stationed on roofs of nearby buildings.
Many high B’nai B’rith officials were believed not to be in the building since they had been scheduled to attend a special convocation at the Kennedy Center where Rabin was to receive an honorary Doctorate of Law from the American University.
Shortly after the seizure, a police spokesman described the leader of the gunmen as a person with an Arabic or Moslem-sounding name. The attackers apparently reached the building in a rented panel truck. One source said the truck bore Arabic lettering. Another said it was owned by an Arab.
While police were trying to deal with the situation at the B’nai B’rith building, gunmen seized the Islamic Center and held 15 hostages. There was no immediate report on whether any of the hostages there were injured. The center is a tourist attraction because of its mosque which can be seen from many parts of the city.
Late this evening police reported that a reporter who entered the District Building while it was seized was shot and killed by the gunmen.