Airlines Again Warned of Cassette Bomb Peril

Times Staff Writer

Britain’s Transport Ministry on Monday issued its third warning about the “high and continuing” risk of bombs hidden in radio-cassette players, urging airlines and airports to take extra measures to prevent a repetition of the disaster that killed 270 people in Scotland last December.

The move followed an unconfirmed report in the Evening Standard that West German police have warned that as many as three additional bombs of the type that downed the Pan American World Airways plane in Scotland are believed to have been built but cannot be accounted for.

A Transport Ministry spokesman commented, “We have been of the opinion all along that there might be other devices around.”

The spokesman said the ministry has sent a reminder of the danger to airlines and airports on Monday by telex. He said the latest warning differs from two previous messages in that it suggests “certain extra measures” that might be taken. He refused to elaborate on grounds of security.

Transport Minister Paul Channon has been criticized in connection with the two previous warnings. One was telexed to British carriers and airport authorities last Nov. 22 and informed them of a radio-cassette bomb that had been discovered by West German police in a raid the month before on the hideout of alleged Palestinian terrorists.


Report From Germany

A ministry spokesman confirmed Monday that British experts had received a detailed briefing on the discovery by the West German Federal Crime Bureau last Nov. 15. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration sent a similar warning to U.S. airports and airlines on Nov. 18.

A more detailed warning from the Department of Transport, dated last Dec. 19 and including a color photograph of the device found in Germany, was mailed after the first of the year, the government has now admitted.

Pan Am Flight 103, which originated in Frankfurt using another aircraft, blew up over Lockerbie, Scotland, on Dec. 21 en route to New York after a stopover and change of planes in London.

In interviews over the weekend, Channon dismissed criticism of the handling of the second warning. He said the document was “of no importance whatsoever” because it was virtually the same as the Nov. 22 telex.

However, texts of classified documents published Monday by another newspaper, the Independent, showed that the second warning contained at least three items of new information that might have helped security authorities to identify a recorder containing a bomb.

Extraordinary Recommendation

The mailed warning also included what seems to be an extraordinary recommendation: “Any item about which a searcher is unable to satisfy himself/herself must, if it is to be carried in the aircraft, be consigned to the aircraft hold.”

Investigators have said that a bomb concealed in a radio cassette recorder and stored with luggage in the hold is what destroyed the Pan Am plane.

Also, security instructions issued here over the weekend are the exact opposite of those in the Dec. 19 letter. The new instructions order that all electronic devices be checked and taken aboard as carry-on cabin luggage. This is meant to help ensure that a saboteur cannot put a bomb on board a plane on which he is not a passenger.

Channon maintains that the ministry’s action had no bearing on the Pan Am bombing in any event, since the explosive device was “most probably” smuggled onto the flight in baggage originating in Frankfurt. The baggage was transferred in London, apparently without further inspection.

The opposition Labor Party continued to attack Channon despite its failure to force the Conservative minister to make a statement in the House of Commons. Labor charges that the government has from the beginning deliberately misled Parliament about the Lockerbie disaster.

John Prescott, the Labor spokesman on transportation matters, told reporters that “any honorable man (in Channon’s place) would have resigned already.”

Paddy Ashdown, leader of the Social and Liberal Democratic Party, said over the weekend that “unless (Channon) comes to the House of Commons at the earliest opportunity next week, and is completely candid in every detail, the demand for an official inquiry on both sides of the Atlantic will become irresistible.”