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Two Held in Sniper Attacks, Weapon Linked to Shootings

By Carol Morello, Christian Davenport, and Hamil R. Harris
THE WASHINGTON POST -- A military-style, .223-caliber rifle allegedly seized from two suspects in the Washington area sniper attacks has been linked by ballistics tests to 11 of the 13 shootings, authorities announced Thursday night, climaxing an exhaustive investigation and signaling the end of a three-week siege by a seemingly faceless gunman who terrified the region with indiscriminate killings.

“Tonight, people in the Washington metropolitan region are breathing a collective sigh of relief,” said Montgomery County, Md., Executive Douglas Duncan, appearing at a news conference Thursday night with law enforcement officials in Rockville, Md., where the manhunt was based.

An Army veteran of the Persian Gulf War and his teenage companion, who were arrested early Thursday, had not been charged in the attacks as of Thursday night. But authorities left no doubt that they intend to charge them in the shootings, which began Oct. 2.

“Just because people haven’t been formally charged doesn’t mean there isn’t evidence to charge them,” said Montgomery County State’s Attorney Douglas Gansler. “There’s a great sense of relief among law enforcement that the people apprehended have been definitively linked to these particular crimes.”

Montgomery Police Chief Charles Moose, a spokesman for the task force investigating the shootings, said prosecutors would meet Friday to discuss charges against John Allen Muhammad, 41, and John Lee Malvo, 17. Muhammad was ordered held without bail Thursday on a weapons charge, and the youth is being detained as a material witness in the sniper investigation.

Despite the arrests, many mysteries remain, including the motive for the attacks. The pair had been living in Washington state, and it is unclear why they allegedly chose to make the Washington, D.C., area their shooting range. Their relationship is also unclear, and it is unknown whether one or both are suspected of having pulled the trigger in the attacks.

Moose, cautioning that the two are not accused of being the snipers, said, “However, we now consider them suspects in the string of shootings.”

Contrary to a theory that prompted wide speculation, there is no evidence that Muhammad or Malvo is connected to a terrorist organization, law enforcement sources said.

But detectives are examining reports from acquaintances that Muhammad may have sympathized with Osama bin Laden and approved of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

A Bushmaster XM-15 rifle, which fires .223-caliber rounds, has been “forensically determined to be the murder weapon,” said Mike Bouchard of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Police said they could link the rifle to 11 of the 14 shootings, in which 10 people were killed and three were wounded in Washington D.C. and in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in Maryland; and Spotsylvania, Prince William, Hanover and Fairfax counties in Virginia. In one shooting, no one was injured. Bullets or fragments from the other two shootings were too badly damaged to be tested, officials have said.