Specialists have linked a terrorist bomb that destroyed a French airliner in Africa, killing 171 people, to a Palestinian group allied with the pro-Iranian, Lebanese-based organization called Hezbollah, the French newspaper Figaro said Tuesday.
Working with fragments of a suitcase found in the wreckage of the airliner that exploded over the desert in Niger on Sept. 19, specialists in Paris' central police laboratory found similarities to a terrorist bomb that exploded at a Paris department store almost five years ago.
The February, 1985, attack at the department store resulted in the arrest of Habib Maammar, a Tunisian member of a group directed by the Palestinian bomb maker Abu Ibrahim. He is now said to be working for the pro-Iranian Hezbollah, or Party of God.
The police prefect in Paris, Pierre Verbrugghe, refused to comment on the newspaper report.
The purported connection is important for American authorities investigating the December, 1988, terrorist bombing of a Pan American World Airways jetliner over Lockerbie, Scotland. There are parallels between the two.
Many experts believe that Abu Ibrahim, who is also known as Hussein Humari, is in retirement in Baghdad and no longer affiliated with any terrorist organization. They say the bombs involved in these incidents were likely fabricated by one of several people taught by Abu Ibrahim.
Thus the most that can be said of the French investigators' work is that it excludes several groups, notably the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, which use different bomb-making techniques.
An informed source said Tuesday that "the French have made a very important forensic discovery that clearly points away from some groups, but whether it points to someone is uncertain."
This, he said, leaves open the possibility that the attacks have been contracted for by one of several groups, including pro-Iranian, pro-Libyan and pro-Syrian organizations.
Figaro said the police technicians have determined that the bomb that destroyed the French airliner was placed in a small Samsonite suitcase lined with thin strips of a plastic explosive called penthrite. When Habib Maammar was arrested in connection with the Paris bombing, police found a similarly treated briefcase at the home of his girlfriend in the French city of Nancy.
Maammar, who is to go on trial in December, has allegedly told a French magistrate that on visits to the Middle East, he sometimes received briefcases from Abu Ibrahim.
According to police sources, the bomb that destroyed the French airliner was detonated by a quartz alarm clock or wristwatch set to go off four or five hours after the suitcase was loaded in Brazzaville, Congo, and before a stop in Chad on the way to Paris.
French sources say the Hezbollah movement is firmly established in several French-speaking African countries with sizable Lebanese populations.