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Charges, questions await Boston bombing suspect

Federal prosecutors yesterday were preparing to file charges against the surviving suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing, even as he remained under heavy guard at a local hospital amid questions about whether authorities would be able to interrogate him.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, was in critical but stable condition with a gunshot wound to the neck, the Boston police said yesterday, and federal and local officials said they were unsure he would be able to talk again.

The full extent of Tsarnaev’s injuries, and whether he sustained them in a gun battle with thepolice more than 12 hours before his capture Friday evening, remained unclear. Officials at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center – the same hospital where his older brother, Tamerlan, 26, was pronounced dead Friday after a shootout with the police in the Boston suburb of Watertown – referred questions about Dzhokhar’s condition to the FBI, which declined to comment.

Authorities are eager to question Tsarnaev about his alleged motives in last Monday’s bombing, which killed three people, injured more than 170 and rattled the nation more than a decade after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. They also want to determine from him whether any international or domestic terrorist groups were involved. Islamist separatists in the Russian province of Dagestan, where Tamerlan Tsarnaev visited last year, yesterday denied any connection to the bombing.

A special team of interrogators from the CIA, FBI and the military is expected to question the suspect. Boston’s mayor and police commissioner said yesterday that the brothers appear to have acted alone.

As the shaken city remembered the victims at church services yesterday and Massachusetts prepared to hold a moment of silence today at the time the first bomb went off, a fuller portrait of Tsarnaev emerged, one that authorities described as chilling.

Zach Bettencourt, a sophomore at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth – where Tsarnaev was enrolled – said Tsarnaev casually discussed the bombing with him only a day later. Bettencourt, 20, noticed Tsarnaev sitting on a bench at the gym, listening to his iPod.

When Bettencourt brought up the bombing, he said that Tsarnaev responded, “Tragedies like this happen all the time.” He said that the two of them then discussed the issue but that he did not remember the exact words of their conversation.

Law enforcement officials confirmed that Tsarnaev went back to school after the marathon bombing, before the FBI released pictures of the two brothers to the world Thursday and described them as suspects. Tamerlan died after a night of mayhem in which the brothers allegedly carjacked a Mercedes-Benz sport-utility vehicle and fatally shot an MIT police officer.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, his body bloodied, was discovered by a Watertown resident in a boat kept in his back yard Friday evening, minutes after the police announced the lifting of a lockdown that had paralyzed the Boston area. The FBI used a bullhorn for about 25 minutes to try to coax him out and then threw flash-bang grenades. A robot lifted the cover on the boat to make sure there were no explosives inside. Tsarnaev was then taken into custody, weak and bleeding.

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick said yesterday that officials had recovered video that shows the surviving suspect putting his backpack down and moving away from it shortly before it exploded. The video is “pretty clear about his involvement and pretty chilling, frankly,” Patrick said on NBC’s Meet the Press.

Boston’s police commissioner said yesterday that federal prosecutors were still reviewing information about possible charges against Tsarnaev, and federal law enforcement officials had indicated earlier yesterday that charges might come later in the day. It was unclear why they had not been filed or when they might be.

Bringing charges in federal court would end a brewing debate in Washington over how to handle the case. Four Republican members of Congress – Sens. John McCain, of Arizona, Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, Kelly Ayotte, of New Hampshire, and Rep. Peter King, of New York – had demanded Saturday that Tsarnaev be treated as an “enemy combatant” rather than as a common criminal suspect. That would enable the government to charge him under the laws of war in a military commission or to hold him indefinitely without charges.

But prominent Democrats disagreed yesterday, saying that Tsarnaev should not be treated as an enemy combatant and that he should be prosecuted in federal court. “I do not believe under the military commission law that he is eligible for that. It would be unconstitutional to do that,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, of California, who is chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Even as the case’s disposition remained unclear, the massive investigation into the bombing continued. Federal law enforcement officials said they are trying to learn everything they can about Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s six months abroad last year – all the places he went and with whom he met. They are also trying to determine how he learned to make bombs and where he might have practiced exploding them.

Also under investigation, law enforcement officials said, is whether Tamerlan traveled abroad under a different name.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which has hundreds of agents working to collect and investigate the explosives used in the bombing, is trying to trace the guns the suspects had – at least one handgun and possibly several more. Cambridge Police Commissioner Robert Haas told the Associated Press yesterday that neither brother had gun permits allowing them to legally carry firearms. Haas said it was unclear whether either brother applied for a permit.

So far, the bombing has not been linked to any overseas terrorist network or any larger terrorist cell within the United States. Yesterday, Islamist separatist groups in Dagestan denied any connection to the attack, saying that their enemy was Russia and not the United States.

“We are at war with Russia, which is not only responsible for the occupation of the Caucasus, but also for heinous crimes against Muslims,” said a statement posted on the Web site for the Mujahideen of the Caucasus Emirate Province of Dagestan.

Also unclear yesterday was whether the brothers had planned to launch other attacks.

Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis said the brothers’ arsenal of weapons and unexploded bombs suggested that they were preparing for other operations. “I personally believe they were,” Davis said on CBS’s Face the Nation.

But Menino downplayed that possibility in an interview on ABC’s This Week, saying, “I’m not convinced that they were planning more attacks,” he said.

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