Terrorist Clues Sought in Crash of Air India Jet
Canadian officials said Monday that they are investigating the likelihood that terrorists caused the crash of an Air India jumbo jet on a flight from Canada to London that killed all 329 aboard.
Sean Brady, spokesman for the Ministry of External Affairs, said in a telephone interview from Ottawa that “there is enough circumstantial evidence” to indicate that the crash of Air India Flight 182 Sunday off the coast of Ireland “was a terrorist incident.”
Lack ‘Firm Evidence’
However, Brady cautioned that “we do not yet have firm evidence,” an assessment seconded by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. After an hour-and-a-half emergency Cabinet meeting, Mulroney told reporters that while “we do not have firm evidence” of sabotage, “obviously we are very concerned from the fragmentary evidence we have received.”
In private conversations, senior Canadian officials were more definite, saying that there are no other conclusions to draw from the Air India tragedy than that it was the result of a bomb, probably planted by a terrorist.
Mulroney strengthened this assumption, albeit tacitly, by discussing the crash only in terms of terrorism when he answered reporters’ questions.
Brady even sought to link the Air India crash with an incident in Tokyo on Sunday, when an explosion occurred in a luggage bin being unloaded from a CP Air jumbo jet. Two baggage handlers were killed.
That explosion, about 45 minutes after the plane landed on a flight from Vancouver, was “clearly terrorist,” Brady said. “There is no question about that.”
He went on to say that “we are not discounting possible links between the two” incidents.
Among the possible links, he said, are reports that one person flew from Toronto to Vancouver on Sunday and had reservations on the Tokyo-bound Canadian Pacific airline flight but did not board after his luggage was loaded.
A spokesman for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police would only acknowledge publicly that “we are conducting an investigation into the two incidents.” He would not discuss what Mulroney and other government officials were saying publicly.
Air India spokesmen in Montreal declined to speak for the record but said privately that they have been told that a bomb blew the plane out of the air while flying from Canada to London.
They pointed to the sudden disappearance of the plane from air control radar screens, the wide radius where wreckage was found and the fact that the bodies recovered so far did not have on life jackets.
“There was nothing to indicate that either the crew or the passengers had any idea that they were in trouble,” one airline employee said.
Somewhat more cautiously, S.S. Siddhu, India’s director of civil aviation, told reporters in London that “the factors and circumstances seem to indicate an explosion in mid-air, but it’s very difficult to say what caused it.”
In Ireland, where the search for bodies of the victims and pieces of the Air India plane is being coordinated, Director Joe Jennings of the government information office said that a separate search has so far failed to locate the two “black box” flight recorders of cockpit conversations and flight information, which could provide clues.
British transport officials said that a survey ship with sophisticated electronic receivers will join the search for the flight records today. The officials said that the boxes are believed to be lying in 4,000 feet of water.
Jennings said that 131 bodies have been recovered and that the major part of the air search for victims is being called off but that ships will continue to comb the area.
Brian Considine of the Marine Rescue Coordination Center in Shannon, Ireland, said that many bodies can be expected to sink and resurface only days later, if at all.
Focus of Search
While feelings grew that both of Sunday’s airline incidents were the result of terrorist acts, the focus of the search for those responsible was narrowing on radical organizations supporting independence for ethnic and religious minorities in India.
Supporting the idea that the Air India flight was sabotaged, Canadian spokesman Brady said, was a claim by a self-proclaimed Sikh independence group that it blew up the plane. There were also reports that a group calling for the independence of the Indian province of Kashmir had claimed responsibility.
Officials of the Indian Embassy in Ottawa said in a telephone interview that they were not in a position to accuse anyone or to make any conclusions about the incidents. But K.P. Fabian, deputy ambassador, said threats have been received in recent months from Sikh and other groups.
Such threats led to requests a month ago from the Indian Embassy and Air India for extra protection at Montreal’s Mirabel international airport. As a result, the Air India flight was thoroughly checked Sunday at Montreal by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, but because the request had dealt only with Mirabel, the flight received only routine attention before taking off from Toronto on its way to Montreal.
And, according to Transport Minister Donald Mazankowski, investigators are looking into reports that X-ray machines in Toronto broke down during the boarding of the Air India plane. These reports held that about 25% of the checked baggage was examined only with a less sophisticated hand-held device.
‘We Will Want to Know’
“That’s one of the things that will be investigated, and if there is a breach of security, we will want to know to what extent security was breached and why,” Mazankowski said.
According to Robert Beaudette, the head of security at Mirabel airport, Air India itself violated an important rule of airline security when it failed to inform government officials that it had pulled three suspicious suitcases off Flight 182 just before the plane left for its leg to London.
“We would have instituted bomb scare procedures which would have involved positive ID of baggage,” he said, meaning that all of the luggage on the plane would be have been re-checked because of the concern over the suspicious bags, which proved to contain nothing threatening.
According to his version, Air India personnel were told of the three suspect bags by airport security forces but did not immediately inform government agents.
By the time they learned of the situation, Beaudette said, “and the RCMP got to the luggage room, the aircraft had taken off and we had no way of identifying the owners or of checking what was on the plane.”
Airline pilots and airline associations say that Canada’s airport security is generally excellent, with luggage checked into a plane’s hold scanned once with X-ray devices unless there are special circumstances.
No Special Attention
Vancouver airport officials said privately Monday that the CP Air flight to Tokyo was not given special attention, meaning there were no second checks of the bags.
Starting Sunday night and continuing through the day Monday, the airports at Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver were ordered to take extraordinary precautions, including the opening of each piece of luggage, whether checked or carried on, two scans of every bag and the use of dogs to sniff for explosives. As a result, there were delays of three hours in some cases, and passengers were told to be at the airports three to fours hours before departure.
In addition, Mazankowski said, all air cargo coming into or leaving Canada will be held for 24 hours for scrutiny.
Mulroney also said that he has ordered a special inquiry into both incidents to determine what had caused them and to decide what new security systems might be needed at Canada’s airports.
News agencies reported that many other international airports increased their security precautions in the wake of the Air India crash. An Air India Boeing 747 about to leave London’s Heathrow Airport for New York on Monday was evacuated and towed to a remote spot after the airport received an anonymous bomb threat. Police searched the plane for more than six hours but found no explosives, and the flight took off more than seven hours late.