'Libyan Lockerbie' remains a mystery

TRIPOLI // The families of the 157 passengers and crew who died aboard a Libyan Airlines flight, which reportedly crashed with a fighter jet over Tripoli airport 20 years ago, never believed it was an accident.

"Every single one of us was convinced from the beginning that this was not an accident. If we had been under any other leader, perhaps we would have believed it," said Sharif Noha, 39, who lost his father.

His doubts stem from the fact that Libya was ruled at the time by dictator Muammar Qaddafi, who eventually admitted his country was behind the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 which killed 243 passengers and 16 crew.

The world has paid much attention to the Lockerbie bombing, which also killed 11 people on the ground in the Scottish town, but few know that another tragedy shook Libya almost four years later.

Many in Libya believe Flight LN1103 was downed on December 22, 1992 on the orders of the Qaddafi regime in a bid to win international sympathy in the face of Western sanctions and to deflect attention from the Lockerbie anniversary.

For 20 years they grieved in silence and alone.

But the suspicion that the "accident" was manufactured persisted, feeding on details such as the similar dates and flight numbers, and the knowledge that the crew of the MiG allegedly involved in the crash both survived.

"It was reported as a mid-air collision but it was all orchestrated. The MiG never crashed into it," said Felicity Prazak, who remains determined to get to the bottom of how her British husband died 20 years ago.

"This is Libya's unknown atrocity," she said.

One theory is that the Boeing 727 was packed with explosives. Another is that it was shot down by a warplane as it prepared to land because the explosives failed to detonate over the Mediterranean as planned.

The 2011 revolution that toppled the Qaddafi regime has opened an unprecedented opportunity for the families of the passengers to meet, compare notes, collect evidence and perhaps finally achieve closure.

The new authorities tell them there is a real commitment to establish the truth, to punish anybody who was involved and to provide compensation for the families.

"We now have a chance to know the full truth of who was behind this crime," said Mohammed Megaryef, the president of the Libyan national assembly, during a remembrance ceremony held on Saturday.

One of the few people to have at least a partial picture of what happened that day is surviving MiG pilot Abdel Majid Tiyyari. He insisted in an interview that he took the fall for a crime he did not commit.

The former air force major said: "I was accused of violating my altitude and climbing to the altitude of the Boeing 727, causing the collision and the death of 157 passengers. But in fact I was flying according to procedure."

Mr Tiyyari insisted he only saw the "detached tail" of the Boeing a split second before a shudder hit his aircraft from below, sending it into a nose spin, which he and his colleague barely survived by ejecting.

He says he spent 42 months in prison for a "collision that never happened".

Mr Tiyyari is convinced that a professional analysis of the flight records would show conclusively that the evidence was tampered with and reveal discrepancies in the reported altitudes of the two aircraft.

He is keen to squash rumours that he shot down the Boeing, stressing that the MiG model which he was flying with a colleague in training was not equipped with a missile carrier or gunsight.

"The key to finding out what happened to the Boeing is determining what caused the separation of the tail unit."

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