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Lockerbie bombing — witnesses recall UK’s worst terrorist attack

Lockerbie bombing: Widow reacts as suspect appears in US court

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On this day 34 years ago — December 21, 1988 — the Pan Am Flight 103 set off from London to New York. Just under 40 minutes into the flight, as the plane made its way over the sleepy town of Lockerbie, Scotland, it exploded, tragically robbing the lives of 207 people.

The Boeing 747 was flying at around 31,000 feet and carrying 259 people, including babies, when it disappeared off the radar. 

Those in the south-westerly town of Lockerbie, however, saw something unimaginable. One eyewitness described seeing a thing in the sky that resembled an “atom bomb” exploding: “There was this horrific mushroom flame,” they told an NPR report in 2008.  

It was at the time the worst airline bombing the world had ever seen, and remains the UK’s deadliest terrorist incident. Not only were all those on board killed, but 11 lives were lost on the ground, with 21 buildings obliterated.   

One man, who was not named, lost many of his relatives. He told the publication: “As far I knew, I’ve lost my brother-in-law and my sister-in-law, and [there] was just a crater where their house was. I can’t even see the house.”

A three-year-old girl, Suruchi Rattan, was one of the victims. She had previously chatted to a man on board the first part of Flight 103 from Frankfurt, Germany, who later left a note with flowers for her. The note read: “To the little girl in the red dress who made my flight from Frankfurt so much fun: you didn’t deserve this.” 

The news sent shockwaves around the world. Of those on board, 190 were American, 43 British and 26 others from 19 different countries. Prince Andrew, who was sent to the scene instead of the Queen, caused outrage when he claimed the disaster was “much worse for the Americans”, and added: “I suppose statistically something like this has got to happen at some stage… Of course, it only affects the community in a very small way.”

Mary Kay Stradas’s husband and father of her three children, Eliah, was supposed to catch a flight on December 22 that year, but in a bid to get home to America sooner for Christmas, caught an earlier flight, unknowingly securing his fate. 

Mrs Stradas, who organised a 20-year memorial for the victims, said: “We want their memories to be kept alive. We want to honour that. At the same time, offer comfort to those of us left behind.”

The explosion was caused by a small bomb stashed away in a cassette player in a suitcase, which was then detonated by a timer. 

It was not the kind of “sophisticated, coordinated attack” seen with the likes of 9/11 later on, Brian Duffy, journalist and author of The Fall of Pan Am 103: Inside the Lockerbie Investigation, explained. However, he said it was a “wake-up call” which saw changes brought into airport security. 

Also speaking to NPR on the 20-year anniversary, he said: “Obviously, it’s much smaller than what we saw on that terrible morning in September of 2001. But this was a horrific wake-up call. And I know from having spent time with the families of the victims that even now, 20 years on, it’s something that they have to live with daily.”

American and British investigators spent decades seeking justice for the families and loved ones of the victims, a pursuit that continues to this day. It was thought that two Lybian intelligence agents were the culprits, acting in retaliation to the 1986 American bombing of the country’s capital, Tripoli. 

In 1991, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi and Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah — accused of being intelligence agents — were charged with 270 counts of murder, conspiracy to murder, and the violation of the UK’s 1982 Aviation Security Act. They both denied the charges. 

The following year, Megrahi — who constantly proclaimed his innocence — was found guilty of murder and sentenced to 20 years in prison which he unsuccessfully appealed in 2002. 

The families and loved ones of the victims received compensation to the total sum of £1.7billion — approximately £3billion today — after a deal was struck by Libya, which accepted responsibility for the bombing, in 2003.  

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Then, five years later, Megrahi was diagnosed with “advanced stage” cancer and was released on compassionate grounds in 2009, with one of the victim’s fathers, Jim Swire, being included in those calling for his freedom, stating that it was a question of “common humanity”. Megrahi died, aged 60, at his home in Tripoli in 2012. 

Investigators’ work on the case has never faltered in the decades since. The prosecution had always claimed that Megrahi had not acted alone and in 2020 Abu Agila Masud was charged with playing a role in the bombing. 

This month it was announced that Masud was in US custody, due to appear in a federal court in Washington. 

Five years ago, while in prison in Lybia for bomb-making — an unrelated case – Masud allegedly admitted to making the Lockerbie bomb, taking it to Malta, and preparing it before it was put into the suitcase and loaded onto the Boeing 747.

Masud also claimed that then Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi had thanked him and two co-conspirators “for their successful attack” on the US. However, because the confession was made during Gaddafi’s regime fall and the turbulent political environment that followed, many legal observers are concerned that Masud’s claims came when the country did not have a functioning legal system. 

William Barr, the US attorney general, told the BBC that the alleged confession will be admissible in court following concerns that it may have been coerced. 

The prosecution has said they will not seek the death penalty if the 71-year-old is found guilty. 

Muammar Gaddafi

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