By Joseph Ax
NEW YORK (Reuters) - For years, the radical London imam Abu Hamza al-Masri has been known as much for the distinctive metal hook he wore in place of his missing right hand as for his fiery sermons.
On Thursday, for what appeared to be the first time, Abu Hamza claimed he lost both hands and one eye in an accidental explosion in Pakistan two decades ago.
His account, which came as he testified in New York at his trial on terrorism charges, conflicted with media stories that he suffered the injuries while fighting the Soviets alongside the mujahideen in Afghanistan.
The preacher said his image as a veteran of the Afghan war was exaggerated by the press.
"Unfortunately, the reputation is larger than the reality," he told a jury in Manhattan federal court, in a baritone that carried across the room.
U.S. prosecutors have accused Abu Hamza of trying to set up a jihadist training camp in Oregon and providing aid to al Qaeda and the Taliban. He is also charged with helping Yemeni militants who in 1998 kidnapped a group of Western tourists, four of whom later died during a military rescue operation.
His lawyers have argued that he employed provocative language but never participated in any crimes.
During nearly six hours of testimony on Thursday, Abu Hamza described his travels to Afghanistan and elsewhere; prompted laughter with a joke about John Travolta; and broke down while recalling the aftermath of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia that left thousands of Muslim villagers dead.
But it was the description of his crippling accident that riveted the packed courtroom.
As a civil engineer, he said, he was working with the Pakistani army in Lahore on a road project that involved explosives in 1993. At one point, someone left a container of chemicals on a table, which he picked up.
Finding it warm to the touch, he sought to throw it away, but the container exploded in his hands, sending him into a coma.
His injuries made him a "hero" in the eyes of many Muslims when he returned to London, he said.
He said the stories that sprung up about how he lost his hands were inaccurate.
"Some people said I went to Saudi Arabia and was caught stealing, and they cut off my hands," he said, laughing.
During Wednesday's testimony, he also said visiting Srebrenica after the massacre convinced him that young Muslims, even children, needed training to defend themselves against oppressors.
He used inflammatory language in order to attract followers, he said, but insisted his public persona was different from the adviser he was in private. When individuals came to him with plans for violence, he said he counseled restraint.
At one point, he said he believed Osama bin Laden needed to be controlled. But he also acknowledged that he admired the former al Qaeda leader.
"He was a very famous man," he said. "People loved him, including myself."
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; editing by Andrew Hay)