Final moments of Lockerbie jet played out in court

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The Independent Online

After 11 years of struggle, intrigue and diplomatic confrontation, the final moments of the Pan Am jet which exploded over Lockerbie were played out in a court of law yesterday.

Relatives, witnesses and the two Libyans accused of planting the bomb which claimed the lives of 270 people on a December night in 1988 watched as banks of television monitors replayed the last nine minutes of flight 103.

It started at the bottom of the air traffic controller's monitor, a small white diamond slowly moving northwards as the on-screen clock showed 18.54.

A few minutes later, the clock reading 19.01, the diamond passed over an outline of the Solway Firth, five small dots trailing behind, showing from where it had come. Then, at 19.03, the diamond suddenly broke up - three diamonds and then five flashed on the screen where moments earlier there had just been one.

This computerised image records the moment on 21 December 1988 when the airliner exploded, killing all 259 passengers and crew, and 11 people in the small Scottish town where the debris fell.

Yesterday, as the trial of the two Libyans began at Camp Zeist in the Netherlands, prosecutors played this recording of the last moments of the Boeing 747 to the court. The diamond was flight 103; the subsequent, smaller diamonds the wreckage tumbling from the skies, but the image on the monitor could have been "something as simple as a blip", Alan Topp, an air traffic controller at Prestwick told the court. Minutes later, with the plane still missing from his screen, Mr Topp became more concerned and spoke to his supervisor, Adrian Ford. "I have got a problem," he said. "Not now," came the response, "I am trying to speak to the Dumfries and Galloway Police." Mr Topp added: "He did not mention an explosion but it was enough for me. At that point the penny dropped."

Others, also initially unaware of what they were witnessing, told the court how they saw flight 103 explode. Robin Chamberlain, a pilot with BA, was flying a shuttle flight from London to Glasgow and was behind the Pan Am 747.

Starting his descent north of Carlisle, Captain Chamberlain, 52, saw a flashing orange light to his right. He thought at first it might have been an oil platform at sea, burning off gas. "Thirty seconds later ... there was a large explosion which was obviously on the ground," he told the court. "It looked to me like a petrol storage tank had blown up. If you imagine things that you see in films, it was like that. It was like a large explosion or bomb, something of that nature."

The two men who witnessed the destruction of flight 103 were among nine witnesses called yesterday at the Scottish Court in the Netherlands, as the prosecution opened its case against the two Libyan defendants, Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi, 48, and Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah, 44.

The two men, both said to be members of the Libyan Intelligence Services, are charged with conspiracy to murder, murder and a breach of the 1982 Aviation Security Act. They deny all the charges.

Lawyers said they would be using a special defence under Scottish law which would incriminate other people for the crime. These included members of two Palestinian guerrilla groups, among them a convicted terrorist listed as one of the prosecution witnesses.

The trial is expected to last more than 12 months and cost about £100m.

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