Saturday 5 March 2016

Mystery of Flight 103

[This is the headline over an article by Dara MacNeil published on this date in 1998 by An Phoblacht/Republican News. It reads as follows:]

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 Amin 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.

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