West German authorities Monday confirmed a report that the bomb that destroyed a Pan American World Airways plane over Lockerbie, Scotland, last Dec. 21 may have been in a suitcase transferred from a plane that had boarded passengers in Malta.
Pan Am Flight 103 originated in Frankfurt and was en route to New York after stopping in London. The crash at Lockerbie took 270 lives.
"There are clues that a suitcase from Malta played a part," said Willi Fundermann, a spokesman for the federal investigations office. He said the clues have provided a "hot trail" for investigators.
The Malta development was reported by the Sunday Times of London and amplified Monday in the London Independent.
The newspapers said that a bomb concealed in a Toshiba radio had been placed in a Samsonite suitcase filled with clothing and put on board Air Malta Flight 180 from Valetta to Frankfurt on the morning of the explosion.
The passenger who checked the suitcase for the flight, which was tagged for New York via Pan Am 103, did not board the Air Malta plane, although most airlines take steps to ensure that no baggage is put on board a plane unless it is accompanied by a passenger.
Scottish detectives have visited Malta and developed information that a small boutique in the village of Sliema, near Valetta, the capital, sold articles of clothing that were found in the luggage containing the bomb.
The boutique was identified by British forensic experts through labels found in clothing. The boutique's owner told detectives he remembered selling the items because one article, a tweed jacket, had been in his stock for seven years.
He identified the purchaser as a man of 45 to 50 years and said he believed that he was Libyan, although he did not say why.
Fundermann, the investigations office spokesman, said: "There are clues that someone from Libya--or at least someone with a Libyan accent--may have bought the items."
In Washington, a U.S. official described the information as a "very significant focus" of the investigation. He declined to say whether the man's name has been determined.
British police have expressed displeasure with West German police authorities, saying they should have pursued the investigation more thoroughly.
West German police insist that they have no evidence, and have never had any evidence, to show that the bomb originated in Frankfurt.
According to the London reports, British police are now working on the assumption that the bomb, believed to contain the explosive Semtex, was concealed in the radio cassette player in Neuss, near Duesseldorf, by Arab terrorists, members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC).
British investigators think the bomb was smuggled from West Germany to Malta and that two members of the PFLP-GC visited Valetta two months before the bombing and met with Palestinians there.
British police sources have speculated that members of the PFLP-GC were contacted by Iranians furious over the U.S. Navy's downing of an Iranian airliner in the Persian Gulf on July 3, 1988, and hired or persuaded them to plant a bomb on a U.S. airliner.
Soon after the bombing, a group calling itself Guardians of the Islamic Revolution claimed responsibility for the act, saying it was in retaliation for the downing of the Iranian passenger plane, which occurred when a U.S Navy cruiser thought it was under attack.