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    Bomb Caused Pan Am Crash, British Probers Conclude

    By Edward Cody
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Thursday, December 29, 1988; Page A01

    LONDON, DEC. 28 -- A bomb that apparently exploded in the luggage compartment caused last week's midair disintegration of a Pan American jumbo jet over Scotland in which about 270 persons were killed, British investigators concluded today.

    The announcement, from the Department of Transport's Air Accidents Investigation Branch, laid to rest speculation that the crash might have been caused by structural failure in the Boeing 747 aircraft. But it left open questions of who put the deadly bomb aboard, for what purpose and how it eluded airport security.

    As a result, today's conclusions signaled the beginning of a painstaking international detective job matching further clues from recovered debris with whatever intelligence can be collected on the people who carried out the sabotage. It also seemed likely to revive last week's questions about airport security and the U.S. and British governments' handling of intelligence on possible terrorist threats.

    {In Washington, FBI Director William S. Sessions said, "We have no basis upon which to suspect that it was definitely terrorism or to identify any particular group." Story on Page A20.}

    "Inquiries are ongoing throughout the world," said Chief Constable John Boyd at the crash site in Scotland.

    Boyd said the probe involves the FBI, which has agents on the scene, and other nations' police services as well as Britain's own Antiterrorist Branch of the Metropolitan Police in London.

    Michael Charles, who heads the investigation, said a British Army laboratory at Fort Halstead in Kent also is still examining luggage, pieces of a luggage rack and other wreckage in search of further evidence. These bits of debris and others will be "subjected to lengthy chemical and metallurgical forensic examinations," he added.

    The British investigators said analysis of residue recovered from crash debris suggested the bomb was made of "a high-performance plastic explosive."

    Some plastic explosives can be passed undetected through normal airport security devices and can be flattened or molded into a variety of shapes and sizes for concealment in luggage or elsewhere, experts here explained. These explosives, which have been used by terrorists in the past, also can give tremendously high destructive power to a relatively compact bomb, they said.

    "Much investigative work remains to be done to establish the nature of the explosive device, what it was contained in, its location in the aircraft and the sequence of events immediately following its detonation," Charles said in a statement.

    In an apparent indication that the bomb went off in the forward baggage hold, however, the statement also said two sections of a luggage pallet framework there "show conclusive evidence of a detonating high explosive." This was believed to be pockmarks from flying metal shards, which experts here have said would result from a strong bomb blast in the plane.

    The forward area of the plane has been under particular scrutiny in the week since the crash. The one intact piece of the aircraft to fall to the ground -- the nose cone, flight deck and forward part of the first-class cabin -- apparently was ripped off from the rest of the fuselage by the force of the explosion.

    Because this is where the plane's electronics nerve center also was located, the two flight recorders gave little data on what happened to make the craft burst into pieces.

    The ill-fated flight, Pan Am 103 bound for New York, originated in Frankfurt last Wednesday with a midsized Boeing 727. The aircraft was changed to a giant 747 and additional passengers boarded during a stopover at London's Heathrow Airport about one hour before the plane flew apart at 7:15 p.m. 31,000 feet above Scotland.

    If the explosives were concealed in a suitcase, therefore, it was loaded or transferred aboard the 747 that had been waiting at Heathrow, reputedly one of the world's most security-conscious airports. Experts here cautioned, however, that the bomb also could have been smuggled aboard the aircraft before the luggage was loaded.

    On hearing the news, the opposition Labor Party's transport spokesman, John Prescott, immediately called for a full review of security measures at Heathrow, renewing a call made last week.

    Prescott said he also has written to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher demanding an investigation into the Department of Transport's handling of the issue. Prescott expressed outrage last week at the department's disposition of a U.S. security alert against Pan Am flights and at a decision by Transport Secretary Paul Channon to fly off Friday for a Christmas holiday in the Caribbean.

    Security officials at Heathrow responded that they will follow whatever procedures are recommended to them by the Department of Transport. According to statements by officials here last week, airport authorities following guidelines from the Department of Transport supervise checks of passengers and their hand luggage while individual airlines supervise checks of hold luggage.

    Authorities at Frankfurt's busy airport reiterated that no evidence has been found to indicate the bomb was smuggled aboard in a suitcase loaded there.

    {In Helsinki, where the U.S. Embassy received telephone warnings of bomb threats against a Pan Am flight to the United States from Frankfurt, Finnish Security Police Chief Seppo Tiitinen said "we have found no connection between these calls and the crash." The case was closed, he said.}

    Pan American said 259 passengers and crew, mostly American, were aboard at the time of the breakup, all of whom perished. In addition, 11 persons from the small Scottish town of Lockerbie have been reported missing and presumably were killed by falling debris and fire, police investigators said.

    The probable overall toll of 270 made the crash the worst in Britain's history.


    © Copyright 1988 The Washington Post Company

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