WORLD

A new outburst of death in the skies

WILLIAM LOWTHER April 14 1986
WORLD

A new outburst of death in the skies

WILLIAM LOWTHER April 14 1986

A new outburst of death in the skies

GREECE

The solitary Greek shepherd looked up to see the bodies falling out of a Trans World Airlines plane 100 km southwest of Athens. An explosion aboard the Boeing 727 flying from Rome to Athens above him had killed four American passengers—one of them a seven-month-old baby. It also sent wide ripples of anxiety through diplomatic, airline and tourism circles. The explosion, likely caused by a terrorist’s bomb smuggled aboard Flight 840, took place less than a week after a U.S. confrontation with Libyan forces in the Mediterranean Gulf of Sidra which led to threats of reprisals from anti-U.S. elements in the Arab world. In fact, soon after the aircraft landed safely in the Greek capital, news agencies in Beirut received a statement signed by a little-known group called the Arab Revolutionary Cells-al-Kassam. The communiqué said that members of the group planted the bomb as a “counterstroke to all attempts of American imperialism to subjugate the Arab masses. . .including its attack on Libya.”

In addition to the four dead, nine other people were injured in the blast—among them a Windsor, Ont., furrier. They were treated in Athens

hospitals as police began searching for a woman who apparently hid the bomb near a 10th-row seat in the aircraft on an earlier Cairo-to-Athens leg of the flight.

World leaders reacted swiftly. A spokesman for Libya’s leader, Col.

Moammar Khadafy, denied that his country was involved. President Ronald Reagan said that the incident was “a barbaric act of wanton terrorism.” And Israel’s Prime Minister Shimon Peres blamed two Palestinian guerrilla groups —the Syrianbased Abu Moussa and the Libyan-connected Abu Nidal organizations — for the bombings.

The plane was flying at an altitude of about 10,000 feet and beginning its descent into Athens airport when the bomb blew a gaping three-metre hole in the fuselage. The four passengers were sucked out, three falling on to an abandoned airstrip near Argos, the fourth into the sea. Peter Karasavvas, a 34-year-old Windsor fur store owner, was seated two rows behind the site of the blast. He recalled: “It was a big noise and everything was thrown apart inside. I knew there were people sitting in that area and then there were no people.” Police say that an explosive device may have been left under seat 10F, also blown out in the blast, by a woman carrying a Lebanese passport in the name of Mei Mansour who apparently boarded the flight in Cairo and deplaned at an earlier stop in Athens. But at week’s end Mansour, in hiding in Tripoli, Lebanon, issued a statement denying that she had been responsible for the explosion.

Meanwhile, security experts and travel industry officials began forecasting losses as potential travellers change their plans. Said New York travel agent June Martin: “Khadafy has won the war against Americans travelling abroad.” Added Manhattan travel executive Irene Conover: “The facts are there—bombings, hijackings, shipjackings. People are not forgetting. Travel to Greece is about 99 per cent off, to Egypt the same.” And in Canada a spokesman for P. Lawson Travel in Calgary said that since last week’s explosion, “travel requests for Greece are down to a bare minimum”

compared to a peak demand last year. Many airline pilots called for a boycott of countries linked to terrorism. Capt.Thomas Ashwood, security expert of the U.S. Air Line Pilots Association, said: “We must isolate offending nations from goods or services. I know of no other approach.” F 3r its part, the Canadian Air Line Pilots’ Association (CALPA) will join its international partners in addressing the issue at the next worldwide annual meeting in London, England, this week. But Capt. Donald Paxton, chairman of Vancouver’s CALPA-affiliated Canadian Pacific Pilots’ Association, told Maclean's that his organization has approved the U.S. pilots’ position and will recommend that CALPA endorse it.

Meanwhile, police and security experts acknowledged that there is no complete protection from terrorist attacks. Spokesmen for Trans World Airlines said that rigorous security checks were carried out at all the aircraft’s stops. But pilot Richard Peterson said a bomb “could have been in the wall, inside a life vest, anything.” Some experts say that terrorist groups may have developed suitcase bombs that can escape detection by X-ray machines and even hand searches. Italian authorities said last week that the bomb aboard Flight 840 may have been a lightweight plastic explosive with few metal components. As a result, it could probably pass through even the most scrupulous controls.

In fact, Richard Lally, a security expert for the Washington-based Air Transport Association, which represents U.S. carriers, said that the current brand of terrorism may be impossible to detect. Calling for more advanced security technology, Lally added, “We’re using the best tools that are available, but they are not techniques that can or will detect explosives.” The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration is spending $12 million (U.S.) this year on explosives detection research—a 700-per-cent increase over last year. Still, it is unlikely that any new scanning methods will be perfected for another two or three years.

At week’s end, nervous travellers received further chilling news: two Arab groups also claimed responsibility for the Mexicana Airlines crash that killed 166 passengers earlier in the week. And in Berlin, an American soldier and two others were killed in a bomb attack on a discotheque frequented by U.S. servicemen. Said shocked West Berlin Mayor Eberhard Diepgen: “It is obvious that this is an act of international terrorism apparently aimed against the Americans.”

WILLIAM LOWTHER in Washington