Tuesday, 23 February 2021

From Lockerbie to the downing of Flight PS752

[This is the headline over an article by Dr Mohammed al-Sulami, head of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah), that was published yesterday on the website of the Saudi Arabian newspaper Arab News. The following are excerpts:]

On Jan 8, 2020, Iran’s air defense system was on high alert after the military launched a barrage of missiles targeting Iraqi bases housing US troops. Iran feared US retaliation. A year later, there has been no proof of any foreign intrusion into its airspace at the time when two TOR rockets pierced the fuselage of Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752. After initial denials, Iran admitted that the aircraft was shot down “mistakenly.”

If the downing was a mistake, then it exposes the unprofessionalism and recklessness of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). However, there are other interpretations of the incident, linking it to a deliberate and calculated Iranian act intended to pin the blame on rival powers. But thanks to the almost immediate viral photographs and videos on social media, the IRGC had no room to blame hostile foreign forces.

Some 13 months later, a leaked audio of Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif talking about the downing of Flight PS752 has stirred controversy inside Iran and abroad. In it, he can be heard saying that the incident was accidental, but later he says it is possible that two or three “infiltrators” deliberately downed the plane. In addition, he says a full investigation was not carried out and the truth of what happened will never be revealed by Iran’s Armed Forces and top leadership. He does not implicate his own government for hiding the facts, but seems to be scapegoating others by blaming “infiltrators” without providing details. Either way, Iran violated certain provisions of the 1944 Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation and of the 1971 Montreal Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Civil Aviation.

Iran had accused the US of doing the same in July 1988, when Iran Air Flight IR655 was shot down over the Arabian Gulf, killing all 290 people on board. Though the US agreed to pay Iran $131.8 million in compensation in February 1996, some mysteries still exist.

Five months after the tragic downing of the Iran Air flight, Pan Am flight PA103 exploded at 31,000 feet, with its debris scattering across an area of more than 2,000 sq km along the English-Scottish border. The crash over Lockerbie claimed 270 lives. Finding evidence for what caused the deadly blast that ripped the plane apart was comparable to searching for a needle in a haystack, but aviation experts termed it a terrorist act. The media then recalled Iran’s threat to retaliate for the downing of Flight IR655.

Years later, however, Libyan citizen Abdelbaset Ali Mohammed Al-Megrahi was convicted for causing PA103’s deadly end. He pleaded his innocence until his death in 2012. Owing to foreign pressure and political expediency, Libyan President Muammar Qaddafi admitted his country’s role in the bombing. [RB: Libya accepted responsibility for the acts of the official who had been convicted at the Zeist trial. It did not admit anything other than that.] Among others, the late Nelson Mandela, himself a lawyer, had cast doubt on the prosecution’s case and the resulting verdict. Three decades later, the Scottish courts admitted Al-Megrahi’s family’s plea for a third appeal, only to reject it on Jan 15.

If, as some claim, Libya did not down the Pan Am flight, then who did? The most obvious suspect since December 1988 has been Ahmed Jibril, head of a Palestinian-Syrian terrorist group — the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command — whose ties to Iran were no secret. Jibril, said to be living in Damascus, was allegedly paid ... for avenging the downing of Flight IR655. At the time, the George H W Bush administration preferred not to blame Syria or Iran as it was preparing to attack Iraq in 1991 and needed their support. It was also seeking to free some hostages. Hence, Libya was blamed via al-Megrahi.

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