The unanswered questions about Flight 103

Two Libyans will be tried in connection with the Lockerbie crash. But, asks Colin Smith, are they th

Early next month, Dr James Swire will go to Holland to attend the trial of the two Libyan men accused of murdering his eldest daughter, Flora, who was a day short of her 24th birthday when she died over Lockerbie. Armed Scottish police are already in residence at the former Nato airbase near Utrecht where a Scots courtroom will be set up in what was once an underground hospital. The hearing, before a panel of three Scots judges, is expected to last at least a year, probably longer. Dr Swire,the tireless founder of UK Families 103, has rented a flat nearby.

The Lockerbie crash, in December 1988, was the worst terrorist outrage ever to occur in the British Isles. It killed 270 people, 41 of them British citizens. The men charged with their deaths are Abedelbaset al-Megrari and Al-Amin Khalifa Fhimar, both in their late forties. The court will be told that, when Pan Am 103 went down, the accused were working for Libyan intelligence in Malta where they posed as the employees of Medtours, a phoney travel agency. The bomb is supposed to have been inserted into the luggage system in Malta and gone from there to Frankfurt and then by Pan Am feeder flight to Heathrow.

The prosecution will have to explain how a suitcase got into the hold luggage of three flights without an accompanying passenger - though pre-Lockerbie this was not as rare as it has since become. At least one lucky man lost only his suitcase on Flight 103 because he lingered too long in a Heathrow bar.

The defendants deny all charges. Their defence will be that the Lockerbie bomb was planted by a convicted terrorist called Mohammed Abu Talb. This Egyptian-born Palestinian is currently serving life imprisonment in Sweden for killing one person and injuring 22 others in a bomb attack on a Copenhagen synagogue.

Talb, a member of a Syrian-based terrorist organisation with links to Iran, was the original suspect in the case. But in November 1991, the Americans and the British jointly announced that they were indicting the two Libyans and explained that this was based on information received from a certain Abdu Maged Jiacha, a member of the Libyan intelligence service who had defected to the CIA.

Jiacha, who worked in Malta alongside the accused, is the prosecution's star witness and, if the Libyans go down, will be the main recipient of several million dollars of reward money. For the past ten years at least, he has been living somewhere in the United States under the witness protection programme that the FBI lays on for golden stool-pigeons.

If Talb had been charged, Iran and Syria would, by implication, have been in the dock with him. Ever since the US Justice Department produced Jiacha, like a rabbit out of a hat, there has been speculation that America was thanking Syria for its participation in the Gulf war coalition against Iraq, and Iran for remaining neutral in that conflict. In Washington, word came down from on high that Syria had got "a bum rap on terrorism".

The bereaved were not impressed. "Iran did it" badges appeared on the lapels of American support groups. "They are sweeping the deaths of 270 people under the carpet because it is diplomatically convenient to do so," was Swire's initial reaction. Now he says simply that "in the event that they are proved guilty", it does not prove that the Libyans were the only ones involved.

On 5 April last year, Gaddafi's men were handed over to the warders from Glasgow's Barlinnie jail awaiting them at Camp Zeist. Almost immediately, the UN trade sanctions against Libya were suspended and, by December, Britain had restored full diplomatic relations with Tripoli. The Americans have been noticeably slower in this respect, but earlier this month, US diplomats visited Libya for the first time in nearly 20 years.

The jovial spin-doctors of the Foreign Office like to present this breaking of the stalemate with Tripoli as a great coup for Robin Cook. It was, they like to say, the Foreign Secretary who, at a meeting in London with Madeleine Albright in December 1997, persuaded her to accept the idea of a third country trial and then had to hold his breath while she sold it to the Attorney General, Janet Reno, the Iron Lady of Waco. After that, the Dutch had to be brought on board and then Nelson Mandela and the Saudi diplomat Prince Bandar had to be roped in to work on Gaddafi, to convince him that this was the way to return Libya to the family of nations. It was uphill all the way.

The idea of a British court of law convening in a third and independent country is quite unprecedented and was originally mooted in 1994 by Robert Black, a professor of law in Edinburgh. At first, both the American and British governments rejected it out of hand. The Libyans responded to this heaven-sent opportunity to appear reasonable by welcoming a compromise so unlikely to occur.

When he took office, Cook was also hostile to the idea of a third country trial, but changed his mind after meeting Swire. Swire thinks that the trial could open up things and expose a "chain of command". But he sticks to his belief that, whatever peripheral role others played, Iran and Syria are the biggest culprits because they had the biggest motive. He is not alone in thinking this.

In the dawn's early light of Sunday 3 July 1988, for most Americans the middle of a long weekend with Monday's Independence Day holiday looming, the USS Vincennes was at war. In this eighth and final year of the Iran-Iraq conflict, lightly armed Iranian fast patrol boats were attacking neutral tankers shipping Iraqi oil through the Straits of Hormuz. Most of the escort duties were performed by US frigates that had more than enough firepower for the task.

By midday, the missile cruisers had already felt obliged to swat a couple of the Iranian boats, the naval equivalent of using a steam roller to crack a pistachio nut. Then a blip on a radar screen showed an aircraft heading towards the Vincennes from the Iranian shore. When it failed to respond to radio demands to identify itself, possibly because they were transmitted on a military channel, the Vincennes wiped the blip off the screen.

By the end of the day, the Pentagon confirmed that the ship had made a terrible mistake. The Vincennes had shot down an Airbus of Iran Air on a scheduled flight from Bandar Abbas to Dubai. All 290 people on board, 66 of them children, died. The US defence secretary, Caspar Weinberger, said it was all the Iranians' fault for "trying to conduct business as usual". Iranian TV repeatedly broadcast pictures of the bodies of its latest martyrs bobbing among the wreckage in the Persian Gulf. Syria and Libya, Iran's only Arab allies, both condemned America for its "criminal act of terrorism". The captain of the Vincennes was given a medal.

Five months later, a bomb in a Toshiba cassette player, wrapped in baby's clothes and placed in a Samsonite suitcase in the forward hold of the Pan Am jet, exploded over Lockerbie. A few ounces of Semtex turned a neat border town with a small reputation for its splendid fossils of dinosaur footprints into a byword for gothic horror. The explosion ripped the nose off the 747, which started spilling out people. Chilled corpses arrived from 31,000 feet, some still buckled to their seats. They came to rest on roofs, streets, trees and back gardens. One landed on a ewe in a field and killed it. In Sherwood Crescent, the main fuel tank started a fireball and cremated most of the Lockerbie casualties in their own homes. Most of the dead from the aircraft were Americans. Total fatalities, including the locals, were 270 - just 20 fewer than the Iranian Airbus.

At the beginning, the link between these 560 victims of aerial terror seemed cut and dried. Within days of the downing of the Iranian Airbus, there were reports from Tehran that one Mahdi Karroubi, the controller of a public fortune of patriotic donations known as the Martyrs' Fund, had posted a reward of millions of dollars for anybody who succeeded in delivering to Iran its righteous vengeance.

By the end of 1989, the CIA and other American and British investigators suspected that the Martyrs' Fund contract had probably been won by a gang of anti-Arafat Palestinian terrorists based in Syria. Their leader was Captain Ahmed Jibril, then about 50, a product of the Syrian army's engineering corps. In 1970, Jibril had destroyed a Tel Aviv-bound Swissair jet with a bomb fused by barometric pressure, and there had been other, less successful attempts on flights to the Zionist entity. He had men operating in several European countries, including Germany and Sweden, and was once as close to the Libyans as he has always been to the Syrians. Shortly after the Iranian Airbus had gone down, Jibril had been spotted in Tehran.

The case against the Jibril gang built up slowly and obliquely at first. The painstaking collection of thousands of pieces of debris at Lockerbie and its environs had netted Semtex-impregnated shreds of the clothing wrapped around the Toshiba. Scottish detectives established that one of these, a Maltese-made baby's romper suit with the manufacturer's label on it, had been sold on the island to a man of Arabic appearance. For the shopkeeper Toni Gauci, he was a dream customer, and he had been treasuring his memory ever since. In the space of a few minutes, the man had spent a fortune, picking up an enormous variety of stuff, including men's trousers and a jacket which he never even bothered to try on.

Gauci's description of this shopaholic - mid-30s, clean-shaven, lean, muscular - certainly applied to Talb, now in a Swedish prison near Malmo. And it soon emerged, from a used air ticket and several false passports, that he was trying to burn when the Swedish police burst into his flat, that Talb had made two trips to Malta in 1988, one in November when the clothes were purchased.

On 9 April 1990, the Swedes allowed British detectives to question Talb about his movements around this time, which included a trip to Cyprus. In court, Talb had been the defiant upholder of Palestine's right to use every weapon at its disposal. But a transcript of his encounter with the sheriff of Strathclyde's men shows Talb more evasive. He insists that, on both occasions, he was in Malta visiting friends; "friends" also bought him his air tickets; telephone calls he made from Cyprus were to women whose names he is honour-bound not to reveal.

And the routes he travels are whimsical, expensive and almost incomprehensible, even for somebody who might be trying to muddy his tracks. He leaves Cyprus for Malta, but instead of taking one of the many cheap direct flights available, he acquires a ticket that requires him to go via Italy. Then once in Rome, he decides to go to Libya instead, buys a new ticket, checks in his bags, but at the last moment, too late to retrieve his luggage, Libyan Arab Airlines staff find fault with his papers and prevent him from boarding, and he reverts to his original plan. His bags are returned to him in Malta.

Gaddafi is notorious for using the Libyan airline as a cover for his intelligence services. Were they co-operating with Jibril and his Syrian and Iranian backers? Was the juggling with the luggage an elaborate ruse to ship something out to Talb? These are only a few of the many questions unlikely to be answered at Camp Zeist.

Copyright Colin Smith