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Lockerbie: Suspicion immediately fell on the Middle East theory

Lawyers for the two Libyans accused of the Lockerbie bombing began their bid yesterday to incriminate other terrorist groups for bringing down Pan Am flight 103.

British detectives told the Scottish Court in the Netherlands yesterday that they learned that the terrorists were likely to be from the Middle East. Suspicion fell initially on a Palestinian group.

Gordon Ferrie, 55, a retired detective chief inspector and a senior figure in the inquiry, said police learned quickly that an "improvised explosive device" was probably responsible for bringing down the jet with the loss of 270 lives on 21 December 1988. "I would say that three days into the inquiry we started to get that kind information [relating to a bomb] passed to us," he said.

Under cross-examination by the defence, Mr Ferrie said the focus of the criminal investigation fell on the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command.

Detectives were "drawn to a series of air crashes", in particular the bombing of an El Al plane from Rome to Tel Aviv in August 1972. One of the three men convicted in absentia was Marwan Khreesat, a Jordanian. Mr Ferrie said Khreesat was believed responsible for two other explosions.

In October 1988, German police arrested Khreesat and other members of the PFLP-GC in possession of a Toshiba cassette recorder, converted to hold a bomb. But Khreesat was released prior to 21 December when Pan Am flight 103 was destroyed. Mr Ferrie said he believed Khreesat had never been brought to justice.

Another Scottish officer, Detective Chief Inspector Alexander McLean said that days after the bombing up to 10 officers flew to Germany to speak to federal investigation officers. "It was quickly identified that an area of investigation should be in Germany," he said.

Lawyers for the defendants Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi, 48, and Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah, 44, said they will incriminate up to 10 other terrorists. The two Libyans deny conspiracy to murder, murder and breach of the 1982 Aviation Security Act.

The trial is expected to last 12 months.