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5 March 1998 Edition

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Mystery of Flight 103

By Dara MacNeil

On the night of 21 December 1988 a bomb exploded aboard Pan Am flight 103 flying from Frankfurt to New York. The plane was literally blown out of the air above Lockerbie in Scotland. All 259 people on board were killed.

Since November 1991, Britain and the US have publicly blamed Libya for the bombing. They allege two Libyan airline officials - Abdel Baset Ali Mohammed and Al Amine Khalifa Fhimah - placed the bomb aboard the flight, on the orders of the Libyan government. Both have consistently demanded the pair be extradited to stand trial in either Scotland or the US.

Libya has refused to comply. Instead it offered to try the two suspects in Libya, a stance which is supported by international aviation law.

By way of response, Britain and the US employed their considerable muscle on the UN Security Council to have sanctions imposed on Libya.

In 1995, however, Libya made a dramatic concession. It indicated that both men could be tried in a neutral country - Holland was suggested - by Scottish judges, and under Scottish law.

Remarkably, both the US and Britain rejected the offer. Relatives of the 259 dead were perplexed and angered. For some, Britain and the US appeared not to want the case ever to come to trial.

Officially, the `mystery' of flight 103 remains unsolved. However, in a judgement delivered at the end of February the International Court of Justice signalled a possible end to the dispute. In an apparent rebuke to the stance taken by Britain and the US, the court ruled that it could decide whether the Libyan suspects could be tried at home, or abroad.

In doing so, the International Court of Justice has effectively relieved Britain and the US of sole responsibility for resolving the case of flight 103.

The decision was welcomed by the Flight 103 Association, a group composed of relatives of those killed at Lockerbie. The Association has been severely critical of the strange intransigence shown by Britain and the US on the issue.

There are many who suspect that the charges against Libya are fraudulent. They have been aided by the fact that the official version of events has repeatedly been found wanting. In addition, the case has thrown up a number of puzzling anomalies for which no satisfactory answer has ever been provided.

Some days after the disaster, as crash investigators sifted through the wreckage, a local farmer came across a suitcase filled with packets of white powder. He assumed they were drugs.

Relatives of the dead later discovered that the name on the suitcase did not correspond with any name on flight 103's passenger list.

Strangely, the farmer was never questioned about his find - which he reported to the police - at a subsequent crash inquiry. Official sources denied the drugs find.

Furthermore, volunteers helping to search the debris reported how they were warned to stay away from parts of the wreckage.

Some told how they had come across a large object that had been covered with a red tarpaulin. As they approached, they were warned off by armed men standing in the doorway of a hovering helicopter.

Similarly, a local farmer was also warned - by unidentified Americans - to stay away from an area of woodland on his own farm, a few miles east of Lockerbie.

In February 1989 a local reporter - with excellent police contacts - claimed the bomb on Flight 103 had been planted in the baggage of a team of US intelligence agents, on their way back from Beirut. Immediately after his story was broadcast, the journalist was visited by senior police officers demanding to know his source.

He refused to disclose it. He was first threatened with prosecution and then, strangely, asked if he would reveal his source directly to then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, in the privacy of Downing Street. He refused that curious offer also.

In the months after the bombing it emerged that the authorities had received at least two separate warnings of a plot to bomb Pan Am flights. Both correctly identified the timeframe in which the attack was to occur. One of the warnings - telephoned to the US embassy in Helsinki - specifically mentioned a Pan Am flight from Frankfurt to New York.

The warnings were considered serious enough for the US embassy in Moscow to post an alert on its staff noticeboard. And in 1989, a German newspaper alleged that then South African Foreign Minister, Pik Botha was alerted to the danger of taking flight 103. Botha and his party took an earlier Pan Am flight to New York that same day.

In 1995, British journalist Paul Foot revealed that US authorities had received notice of the plot a full ten days before the bomb aboard Flight 103 exploded. The informant had warned that Pan Am flights were among the intended targets of ``teams of Palestinians not associated with the PLO.''

Foot also revealed evidence collected by German authorities which strongly suggested that the bombing of Flight 103 had been carried out by a group under the protection of Syria. The Iranian government, it appears, paid for the attack, in revenge for the shooting down of an Iranian airliner in 1987. The civilian airliner had been shot down by US forces in the Gulf. All 290 people on board were killed.

The Syrian-Iranian connection was pursued with apparent vigour by security forces in both countries. Confident predictions of imminent arrests were made.

And then Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Syria, long out of favour in the West, now became vital to the building of the US-led coalition required for the subsequent war.

As diplomatic relations were restored with this former `rogue' state, the Syrian-Iranian connection was quietly dropped.

In November 1991, with Saddam expelled from Kuwait, the US and British authorities suddenly announced that Libya was now the chief suspect. The evidence offered to support this remarkable development was, to say the least, less then impressive. Sceptics pointed out that the case against the two Libyans would be quickly destroyed in a court. If the case ever got to trial, that is.

In addition, Paul Foot has remarked on the ``amazing coincidence'' that has led investigators to discover the Lockerbie culprits ``in the only Arab country besides Iraq to which the US and Britain were openly hostile.''

In November 1989, a New York based corporate investigative company, Interfor, published its own report on Lockerbie. The firm had been hired by Pan Am. Their starting conclusions also backed up the Syrian-Iranian connection.

They suggested that US intelligence bodies had concluded a deal with Syrian ``narco-terrorists.'' In return for information about US hostages then held in Beirut, a route was found for the Syrians to smuggle drugs from Lebanon into the lucrative US market. The drugs were concealed in the luggage of US intelligence figures, and therefore not subject to normal security checks.

In order to get the bomb onto flight 103, the Syrian-protected group had exploited this arrangement and concealed a bomb amidst the `normal' drugs consignment.

Remarkably, the Interfor report also alleged a senior US intelligence official on board Flight 103 had discovered the drugs `arrangement' and was returning to the US to condemn the deal. The report implied that he - and the other 258 people aboard - were sacrificed to protect the operation.

Fantastical? Perhaps. But maybe just a little less outrageous than the convenient `discovery' of Libyan complicity in the bombing.

Or somewhat less curious than the inexplicable refusal to hold a trial in a neutral third country.

Hopefully the recent ruling of the International Court of Justice may finally lead to the discovery of the real truth about Pan Am flight 103.

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