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The bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie

The bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie
In November 1991, two alleged Libyan intelligence officers, Abdelbaset Al-Megrahi and Lamin Khalifa Fhimah, were indicted for the bombing. (Getty Images)
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Updated 05 May 2020

The bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie

The bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie

The truth about the deadliest terror attack in UK history may never be known

Summary

On Dec. 21, 1988 Pan-Am Flight 103, en route from Frankfurt, via London, to New York, crashed on the Scottish town of Lockerbie, killing all 259 passengers and crew. Eleven residents in a single street in Lockerbie also died when part of the wreckage fell on the town.

Crash investigators quickly found traces of high explosives, triggering a forensic investigation that the aircraft had been downed by a bomb concealed inside a cassette player in a suitcase in the aircraft’s hold.

In November 1991, two alleged Libyan intelligence officers, Abdelbaset Al-Megrahi and Lamin Khalifa Fhimah, were indicted for the bombing. For nine years Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Qaddafi refused to allow their extradition, but under pressure from international sanctions finally agreed to allow them to face trial for murder under Scots law in a special court in The Netherlands.

Fhimah was found not guilty but Al-Megrahi was sentenced to life imprisonment. Diagnosed with prostate cancer, he was released on compassionate grounds after serving a little over eight years of his sentence. He returned to a hero’s welcome in Libya, where he died almost three years later.

JEDDAH: The king leads the Saudi delegation at a GCC summit in Manama, there is a new government in Israel, and there is a crisis in Sudan; that Arab News front page could have been published almost any day this year.

Except the Saudi king was King Fahd, the Israeli prime minister was Yitzhak Shamir, and another report on the page tells you this not 2020, but Dec. 23, 1988. Two nights before, Pan Am Flight 103 from Frankfurt to Detroit via London and New York had been blown up by a terrorist bomb as it crossed the border between England and Scotland.

With a death toll of 270 — all 243 passengers and 16 crew, and 11 victims on the ground in Lockerbie, where the aircraft smashed into two residential streets at 800kph— it remains the deadliest terror attack in UK history.

Few events resonate all the way from a small Scottish border town to the White House. This was one such event. Lockerbie, with its 4,000 souls, joined that list of places in the UK and elsewhere — Aberfan, Munich, Srebrenica, My Lai — forever associated in the public consciousness with cruel and senseless loss of life. 

Scotland, my country, and Glasgow, my city, are not soft places, nor are the journalists they produce noted for emotional incontinence. But I saw tough, cynical, diamond-hard reporters return from Lockerbie numbed into glazed-eyed silence by the enormity of what they saw there, and full of respect and admiration for the quiet dignity and fortitude with which its townspeople bore their losses. 

Most of the plane’s passengers were American, and their relatives flew from the US to identify bodies and possessions. The people of Lockerbie temporarily buried their own grief to provide accommodation, food, comfort and solace to the bereaved. Bonds were forged that remain to this day.




A page from the Arab News archive showing the news on Dec. 23, 1988.

When a terrorist attack was confirmed, the perpetrator identified by Washington was inevitable. The US and the regime of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya had been in a state of undeclared war for years, and US airstrikes in April 1986, far from cowing Qaddafi, appeared only to have incensed him.

US and UK investigators believe Libyan agents in Malta concealed a Semtex bomb inside a radio-cassette player and sent it in a suitcase to Frankfurt, where it was loaded aboard Pan Am Flight 103 and the fate of 270 people was sealed.

Key Dates

  • 1

    The US Federal Aviation Authority issues a bulletin warning of an anonymous tip that a Pan Am flight from Frankfurt will be blown up in the next two weeks.

  • 2

    Pan Am Flight 103 is destroyed by a bomb over Lockerbie.

  • 3

    Alleged Libyan intelligence officers Abdelbaset Al-Megrahi and Lamin Khalifa Fhimah are indicted for murder by US and Scottish authorities, but Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi refuses to allow their extradition for trial.

    Timeline Image Nov. 1991

  • 4

    After a nine-year standoff, Qaddafi agrees to allow Al-Megrahi and Fhimah to be tried under Scottish law in the Netherlands.

  • 5

    Al-Megrahi is jailed for life. Fhimah is found not guilty.

  • 6

    Al-Megrahi loses an appeal against his conviction.

    Timeline Image March 14, 2002

  • 7

    Qaddafi accepts Libya’s responsibility for the bombing and agrees to pay compensation to each of the victims’ families.

  • 8

    Al-Megrahi, with terminal prostate cancer diagnosed, is released on compassionate grounds and returns to Libya.

  • 9

    Libyan civil war breaks out.

  • 10

    Libya’s former Justice Minister Mustafa Abdul Jalil claims Qaddafi’s regime was implicated in the bombing.

  • 11

    Qaddafi is killed by rebel militia while trying to flee after the fall of Tripoli.

  • 12

    Al-Megrahi dies, aged 60.

With some narratives, paradoxically, it can make sense to work backwards — from when Abdelbaset Al-Megrahi, a Libyan intelligence officer and former head of security for Libyan Arab Airlines, died at his home in Tripoli on May 20, 2012, at the age of 60.

More than 11 years earlier, in January 2001, three Scottish judges sitting at a special court in a former US air base in the Netherlands had sentenced Al-Megrahi to life imprisonment on 270 counts of murder for the Lockerbie bombing. He served more than eight years in two prisons in Scotland before the Scottish government released him on compassionate grounds when doctors said he had terminal cancer, and he returned to Libya in August 2009. Given three months to live, he lasted for nearly three years.

Al-Megrahi was, and remains, the only person to be convicted of the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103; with his death, therefore, case closed? Well, no.

The repercussions began soon after the disaster, and continue to this day. Pan Am, its security operations exposed as criminally useless, was bankrupt after a year and out of business after two. UN sanctions against Qaddafi and Libya reinforced their pariah status, and the country remains a failed state embroiled in civil conflict. For the rest of us, airline and airport security have intensified on an apparently endless upward trajectory, and we can at least be grateful that an unaccompanied suitcase with a bomb inside can never again travel from Malta through two airports to the skies over Scotland.

“The Town Hall, decorated with festival lights and now hastily converted into a mortuary, was besieged by distraught relatives.”

From a Reuters story in Arab News, Dec. 23, 1988

Perhaps most significantly, however, Lockerbie may have marked the beginning of a collapse in public trust in what our governments tell us. Authorities in the US and the UK insist that Al-Megrahi was guilty, and that he acted alone or with a single accomplice. Few believe that.

Major world events — the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the moon landings, the 9/11 attacks on America — attract conspiracy theorists like iron to a magnet, and Lockerbie is no exception. It was Iran; it was the Palestinians; it was Mossad; it was the Stasi; it was apartheid South Africa.

What makes Lockerbie different is that one of the “theories” is almost certainly fact — which one, is anyone’s guess. One man more entitled that most to guess is Jim Swire, the softly spoken but determined English country doctor whose daughter Flora, 23, perished on board the plane. Swire, now in his eighties, has devoted his life to finding the truth about Lockerbie. He met and questioned Al-Megrahi. He met and questioned Qaddafi. He has been a thorn in the side of UK and US authorities for more than 30 years, and he believes to this day that the case against Al-Megrahi was a travesty and a tissue of lies, to cover up some ghastly truth that may never be known.

US President George H. W. Bush set up an aviation security commission in September 1989 to report on the plane’s sabotage, and British relatives of the victims met members of the commission at the US Embassy in London in February the following year. A member of Bush’s staff told one of the relatives: “Your government and ours know exactly what happened, but they are never going to tell.”

And that, surely, for the victims of Pan Am Flight 103, for their still grieving families, and for the people of Lockerbie, was the final insult.

  • Ross Anderson, associate editor at Arab News, was on duty as a senior editor at Today newspaper in London on the night of the Lockerbie disaster


Saudi cabinet once again condemns attacks on the Kingdom by Houthis

Saudi cabinet once again condemns attacks on the Kingdom by Houthis
Updated 11 min ago

Saudi cabinet once again condemns attacks on the Kingdom by Houthis

Saudi cabinet once again condemns attacks on the Kingdom by Houthis
  • Ministers also briefed on King Salman’s recent conversation with US President Joe Biden, and the latest COVID-19 developments

RIYADH: Saudi authorities have again condemned the continuing cross-border attacks on the Kingdom by the Houthi militia in Yemen.

The comments came on Tuesday, during the weekly meeting of the Saudi cabinet chaired by King Salman. The latest Houthi assault took place earlier in the day and left five civilians injured.

“The council appreciated the efficiency of the air-defense system in confronting and thwarting the threats made by the Iran-backed terrorist Houthi militia, and its violations of international laws by launching ballistic missiles and drones at civilians and civilian objects in the Kingdom in a deliberate and systematic manner,” said Minister of Information Majid Al-Qasabi.

The cabinet was also briefed on King Salman’s telephone conversation with US President Joe Biden last Thursday, during which both sides stressed the depth of the relationship between the two countries, and the importance of strengthening the partnership to serve their interests and achieve regional and international security and stability.

The Council of Ministers hailed a second consecutive year of progress made by the Kingdom in the Women, Business and the Law 2021 report recently published by the World Bank Group, which ranked Saudi Arabia among the leading countries in the MENA region for empowerment of women.

Initiatives implemented as part of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 have helped to support the introduction of legislative reforms designed to enhance and expand the role of women in the economic development of the nation, and make the Kingdom more competitive regionally and globally, the cabinet said.

Ministers were briefed on the latest developments in the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, and reviewed reports from new vaccination centers that have opened in several regions, Al-Qasabi told the Saudi Press Agency.

The cabinet also congratulated Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the successful surgery he underwent last week, wishing him health and wellness.
 


Syrian victims of chemical strikes file case with French prosecutors

Syrian victims of chemical strikes file case with French  prosecutors
In this file photo taken on May 22, 2017, smoke rises from buildings following a reported air strike on a rebel-held area in the southern Syrian city of Daraa. (AFP)
Updated 46 min 13 sec ago

Syrian victims of chemical strikes file case with French prosecutors

Syrian victims of chemical strikes file case with French  prosecutors
  • People in Khartoum watch a movie at the Sudanese European Film Festival at an outdoor cinema for visitors adhering to COVID-19 restrictions. (AFP)

PARIS: Lawyers representing survivors of a chemical weapons attack in 2013 in Syria have filed a criminal complaint against Syrian officials whom they blame for the deaths of hundreds of civilians in a rebel-held area.
France is home to thousands of Syrian refugees, and its investigating judges have a mandate to determine whether crimes against humanity were committed anywhere in the world.
The case, which about a dozen people have joined, follows a similar one opened in Germany last year. It offers a rare legal avenue for action against the government of President Bashar Assad.
Attempts by Western powers to set up an international tribunal for Syria have been blocked by Russia and China at the UN Security Council.
“This is important so that the victims have the possibility to see those responsible being brought to justice and held accountable,” Mazen Darwish, who heads the Paris-based Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), said.
The SCM filed the complaint along with two other NGOs: the Open Society Foundation’s Justice Initiative and Syrian Archive.

BACKGROUND

France is home to thousands of Syrian refugees, and its investigating judges have a mandate to determine whether crimes against humanity were committed anywhere in the world.

France’s intelligence services concluded in 2013 that a sarin gas attack on the Eastern Ghouta region just south east of Damascus that killed 1,400 people had been carried out by Syrian government forces.
The complaint is based on what the lawyers say is the most comprehensive body of evidence on the use of substances such as sarin gas in Syria.
“We have compiled extensive evidence establishing exactly who is responsible for these attacks on Douma and Eastern Ghouta, whose horrific effects continue to impact survivors,” said Hadi Al-Khatib, founder and director of Syrian Archive.
A UN-commissioned investigation to identify those behind chemical weapons attacks in Syria concluded in 2016 that Syrian government forces had used chlorine and sarin gas.
Darwish said he expected another case to be opened in Sweden in the coming months.


Myanmar youth defy lethal crackdown

Myanmar youth defy lethal crackdown
Updated 03 March 2021

Myanmar youth defy lethal crackdown

Myanmar youth defy lethal crackdown
  • Fear of losing future pushing young people to partake in deadly protests

YANGON: Two days after Myanmar marked its bloodiest day in weeks of protests, thousands of residents returned to the streets on Tuesday in a massive show of force against the military rule.

At least 18 were killed and dozens injured in the anti-coup demonstrations on Sunday after police opened fire in different parts of Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city, after attempts to disperse the crowds with stun grenades, tear gas and shots failed.

Experts say the unrelenting protests are part of the public’s fight “to unblock their future.”

“The youth are more resentful now as they feel their future has been blocked,” Aung Thu Nyeen, director of the Institute of Strategy and Policy – Myanmar, a Yangon-based think tank, told Arab News.

The political analyst commended the country’s “brave young people who are collectively leading the protests against the military dictatorship.”

Myanmar has been in a state of unrest since Feb. 1, when military leaders seized power after overthrowing the civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi.

The coup followed a landslide win by Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy in the November general election. But the army rejected the results, citing poll irregularities and fraud.

During the takeover, the military detained key government leaders — including Suu Kyi, President Win Myint, and several prominent activists — and declared a state of emergency, along with an announcement that the country would be under military rule for at least a year.

Myanmar has witnessed widespread protests ever since, with thousands ignoring a ban on public gatherings.

“No one can accept this military coup anymore,” Nyeen said, adding that this year’s “uprising against the military was much bigger than the 2007 and 1988 pro-democracy revolutions, as almost everyone across the country is participating in the protests.”

The past few weeks have seen some of the biggest public demonstrations in the country’s history, even as military leaders ordered the mobilization of soldiers to quell the latest wave of protests.

On Tuesday, too, there were attempts to crack down on protesters, with roads in Yangon and elsewhere in Myanmar blocked with makeshift barricades.

However, despite their fear, some of the residents said they had devised ways to protect themselves.

“Of course we are afraid, but we can’t hide at home at this time. We have to protest, and we also have to protect ourselves,” Ko Latt, a 23-year-old protester and member of Thingangyun township’s “Tank” team, told Arab News. 

The “Tank” teams comprise protestors in their twenties and above who — armed with tear gas-proof masks, homemade bulletproof jackets and other protective gear — defy the lethal crackdowns with daily demonstrations.

Analysts said that most protesters are youth who “have realized that they needed to rely on themselves to stand up against the military.”

“Myanmar has been living in a dictatorship for over 60 years, and the young people from Generation Z cannot accept to lose their future. So, they have decided to create their future themselves,” Than Soe Naing, a Yangon-based peace monitor and political commentator, told Arab News.

“They have decided that the fight against the military dictators must be the last fight of their generation. So, they will keep on fighting,” he added.

Denouncing the deadly crackdown by the military and police on Sunday as “the worst and most cunning crime against the people,” Naing said the military is up against a formidable opponent this time as they are fighting with tech-savvy youngsters.

“This revolution is led by Generation Z. The technologies they have are modern…It would seem we are getting much closer to winning,” he said.

And despite Nyeen expressing concern for the young protestors’ safety as the “troops have a good surveillance system fitted with drones,” Naing dismissed the concerns.

“At least 30 million people have participated in the protests so far. Despite the forceful crackdown, there have been only 30 deaths. It shows that the protesters are more clever than ever. So, I think this revolution will conclude successfully by the end of March,” Naing said.


Sahara tension: Moroccan row deepens with Germany

Sahara tension: Moroccan row deepens with Germany
Soldiers of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SARD) parade during celebrations marking the 45th anniversary of the creation of the SARD Saturday, Feb.27 2021 near Tindouf, southern Algeria. (AP)
Updated 03 March 2021

Sahara tension: Moroccan row deepens with Germany

Sahara tension: Moroccan row deepens with Germany
  • A senior Moroccan government official confirmed on Tuesday that the letter was authentic, but said it was not meant to be made public

RABAT: Morocco’s Foreign Ministry has suspended ties with the German Embassy because of “deep misunderstandings,” notably related to the disputed Western Sahara.

Morocco is angered by German criticism of former US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara in return for moves by Rabat to normalize its relations with Israel.
A letter leaked online from Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita to the rest of the government orders officials to suspend “all contact, interaction and cooperation” with the German Embassy and embassy-related activities.
A senior Moroccan government official confirmed on Tuesday that the letter was authentic, but said it was not meant to be made public.
The official also noted the appearance of a flag of the pro-independence Polisario Front outside the state assembly in the northern German city of Bremen. Germany’s Foreign Ministry said it was aware of media reports about the letter.
The Algeria-backed Polisario Front fought for independence for Western Sahara after Morocco annexed the former Spanish colony in 1975. UN peacekeepers now monitor a 30-year-old cease-fire between Moroccan forces and Polisario supporters.
The UN has expressed concern that Trump’s decision could thwart negotiation efforts in the long-running Western Sahara conflict.


Changes in KSA so far just tip of the iceberg, Saudi PIF chief tells the ‘oil man’s Davos’

Changes in KSA so far just tip of the iceberg, Saudi PIF chief tells the ‘oil man’s Davos’
Updated 03 March 2021

Changes in KSA so far just tip of the iceberg, Saudi PIF chief tells the ‘oil man’s Davos’

Changes in KSA so far just tip of the iceberg, Saudi PIF chief tells the ‘oil man’s Davos’

DUBAI: Changes in Saudi Arabia in the past five years are just the “tip of the iceberg” of the transformation the Kingdom will experience under the Vision 2030 strategy and beyond, Yasir Al-Rumayyan, governor of the Public Investment Fund, said on Tuesday.
“The things we’d like to achieve in 2030 will be our optimal way of starting the next phase, which is what we will do until 2040, or after that to 2050,” Al-Rumayyan told a virtual session of CERAWeek — the “oil man’s Davos” — in Houston, Texas.
“Our society is changing, the people are becoming more receptive to new ideas on how companies should work and how society should function, and even the social contract is changing. If you add all of these together, you will have an idea of what Saudi Arabia, by embracing and implementing Vision 2030, will look like in nine years,” he said.
Al-Rumayyan, who is also chairman of Saudi Aramco, said plans remained in place to sell more shares in the world’s biggest oil company, after the biggest initial public offering (IPO) in history in 2019 when it sold less than 2 percent of its shares.
“From the very beginning we said we would be selling more of the shares owned by the government; once we see market conditions improving, and more appetite from different investment institutions and investors, we will definitely consider selling more shares,” he said.
He also underlined the Kingdom’s ambitions in renewable energy and hydrogen fuels. “Aramco is interested in renewables, believe it or not. It is the largest oil and gas company on the planet, but we are thinking of ourselves as an energy and petrochemical company.”
He told Daniel Yergin, the Pulitzer prize-winning oil historian, that PIF would invest $40 billion a year in Saudi Arabia to “stimulate the economy and
create jobs.”