Lockerbie probe cites lax baggage checks

March 23, 1991|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,London Bureau of The Sun

LONDON -- Tighter baggage checks at Frankfurt and Heathrow airports could have prevented the terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in December 1988, the official disaster inquiry ruled yesterday.

The 270 deaths from the bombing could have been avoided if more stringent efforts had been made to match bags to passengers traveling on the London-to-New York jetliner, said Sheriff-Principal John Mowat, who headed the probe.

Reliance in Germany and Britain on X-ray checks of baggage alone was "a defect" in security, but the primary cause of the deaths was "a criminal act of murder," the report said.

The 99-page inquiry report suggested the suitcase containing a bomb hidden in a radio-cassette player "probably" was transferred in Frankfurt from a non-Pan Am flight to Pan Am 103A to London, and then at Heathrow onto the New York-bound jetliner.

Interline baggage was X-rayed at Heathrow, but there was no system of matching onward baggage with traveling passengers, although the limitations of X-ray examination in bomb-detection were "generally recognized."

In the absence of such a passenger-baggage reconciliation check at Frankfurt it would have been "reasonable" for more stringent baggage transfer checks at Heathrow, said the report.

Pan Am officials did not respond directly to the conclusion on baggage checks, but they emphasized that the review turned up no indication that the airline had been negligent.

"Although we have not yet seen the entire determination, the portions we have reviewed demonstrate that the Sheriff-principal thoroughly reviewed the evidence and did not find that negligence on the part of any person or organization led to the tragedy," said Elizabeth Hlinko, a spokeswoman for Pan Am.

The findings supported the claims of the victims' families that the airline's security was below the level claimed in the wake of the disaster.

"However, I do not think any finding that a general laxity in security on the part of Pan American and Alert [the airline's security system] was relevant to the circumstance of the deaths would be justified in the absence of any evidence as to how their performance compared with that of other airlines," said Sheriff Mowat.

The sheriff criticized the British Department of Transportation, saying its security policy "failed to provide protection against an extra bag, either in the interline system at Heathrow or in the tarmac transfer."

He added: "I consider that fact to be relevant to the circumstances of the deaths."

He did not consider "relevant" the Transportation Department's failure to circulate promptly color photos of a radio-cassette player containing a bomb seized in a German anti-terrorist operation.

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