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FBI Would Accept Aid From Arafat : He Could Provide Clues to Jetliner Loss, Sessions Says

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Times Staff Writer

FBI Director William S. Sessions on Sunday welcomed a reported offer by Yasser Arafat to assist in the investigation of the bombing of Pan American Flight 103, saying that the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization has “a wealth of information” to provide.

In ABC and NBC television interviews, Sessions switched his tone to one of greater optimism for solving the Dec. 21 bombing that killed all 259 passengers and crew aboard the London-New York flight and at least 11 more on the ground in Scotland.

Sessions said he has no way of immediately analyzing whether Arafat’s reported offer is genuine but added that he hopes it is. The Sunday Express of London said that the PLO had sent a message to President Reagan making the offer and vowing to send a “hit squad” to hunt down the leader of a Palestinian faction that has been mentioned prominently on all lists of Middle East terrorist organizations suspected in the attack.

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No Message Received

However, White House spokesman Roman Papaduik quoted National Security Adviser Colin L. Powell as saying Sunday that no message had been received from Arafat as of late Saturday.

“He has a great deal of, a wealth of information I am sure he can give us,” Sessions said of Arafat’s reported offer. But the FBI chief rejected the notion of Arafat’s dispatching an assassination squad.

“We believe in the system of justice where people are brought to the bar of justice to answer for those things for which they are charged,” said Sessions, a former federal judge.

“I would hope in the American spirit that these people . . . are handled by the courts.”

Sessions, on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” described himself as being “very, very optimistic” about identifying the person or persons responsible for downing Flight 103. This contrasted with his stance at a press conference Thursday when he underscored the difficulties that the investigators face.

Factors for Optimism

After the televised interview, FBI officials listed several factors for Sessions’ rising optimism. The crash scene in Lockerbie, Scotland, being on land rather than water, “has a potential for producing a tremendous amount of physical evidence” that can lead to identifying the explosive device, where it was put aboard the flight and who was responsible, one official said.

Another reason for optimism, the official added, is the fact that the crash took place in a nation accustomed to cooperating with the United States and one with a legal system similar to that of this country.

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Milton Ahlerich, the FBI’s director of congressional and public affairs, said the agency has “a proven track record of solving international terrorism” cases. He said that nine indictments have been returned publicly in such investigations, along with “numerous secret indictments,” sealed by judges until those charged are apprehended.

Sessions underscored that investigators have not determined whether terrorism or another criminal motivation was behind the destruction of Flight 103 and said it “is absolutely essential that we keep our investigation fully opened.”

Sessions and other FBI officials gave this update of the investigation:

-- Sixty-two passengers have been positively identified through fingerprints--important for investigators attempting to discover motives as well as for families and friends of the victims.

-- FBI agents have interviewed in Detroit the family of Khalid Jaafar, a 21-year-old Lebanese student, who was flying home on Flight 103. Some news accounts have speculated that terrorists learned of his travel plan and duped him into carrying an explosive in his luggage.

No Helpful Leads

Sessions would not comment on these accounts. Another source said that the interview with Jaafar’s family did not provide any helpful leads and indicated that Jaafar did not play any key role in the case.

-- Pan American has turned over computerized data on the flight and passengers to the FBI’s case management information system, and the material has been translated into a form useful for investigators.

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-- British and Scottish investigators have recovered 1 1/2 tons of the 21 tons of cargo aboard Flight 103. The cargo had been scattered over an 80-mile radius, and agents now are seeking to verify the manifest for each item, the sender and recipients and to ascertain that it was a legitimate shipment.

In a possibly related development, U.S. authorities recently alerted airports at Athens and other Mediterranean locations to the movements of “some known terrorists” who are traveling with false passports, according to T. Allan McArtor, Federal Aviation Administration chief.

McArtor, interviewed on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” declined to provide any details about the notification.

Avoidance of Delays

Asked about stepped-up security measures that he has ordered for U.S. airlines operating overseas, McArtor acknowledged they might prompt airline travelers to think of flying foreign carriers to avoid delays that will result from the measures.

McArtor said the FAA is discussing the adoption of these precautions with foreign carriers, noting that he regards the threat as being one to all civil aviation rather than just to U.S. operators.

But McArtor noted that there are limits to U.S. authority with sovereign nations and added that decisions must be made on “security, not just economic considerations.”

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At the same time, the FAA chief said he is not trying to totally emulate the stringent security procedures used by El Al, Israel’s airline. “They operate a very small fleet in a very high risk area,” he said.

Meanwhile, other present and former U.S. officials who have worked with the terrorism problem called Sunday for sanctions against friendly nations that fail to crack down on terrorists.

Deals With Terrorists?

Interviewed on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Sen. William S. Cohen (R-Me.) called for “isolating those nations” that condone or give safe harbor to terrorists.

Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), chairman of a House subcommittee on the Middle East, wondered whether U.S. allies have struck deals with terrorists to avoid having their citizens taken hostage or their aircraft destroyed.

He said he is suspicious of such possibilities.

Victoria Toensing, a former Justice Department official who oversaw terrorist prosecutions, sharply criticized Greek authorities for refusing to turn over to the United States Mohammed Rashid, who is wanted for the 1982 bombing of a Pan American plane.

She said that if Greece continues to refuse to extradite Rashid, perhaps that country should not host the 1996 Olympics and the United States should issue a travel alert discouraging travel there by U.S. citizens.

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