London (CNSNews.com) - The long-awaited trial of two Libyans accused of blowing up an American airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988 opened Wednesday, with defense lawyers telling the court Palestinian terrorists were to blame.
An official of the Scottish court, set up at a former U.S. air base in the Netherlands, presented a special defense in which counsel for Abdel Basset al-Megrahi and Al-Amin Khalifa Fahima named the Syrian-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC).
Also named were 10 individuals, including Mohammed Abu Talb, a PFLP-GC member serving a life sentence in Sweden for terrorism.
Pan Am flight 103 from Frankfurt to New York via London was bombed as it flew over the Scottish village of Lockerbie, killing 270 people in the plane and on the ground, most of them Americans.
Al Megrahi and Fahima were identified as key suspects, and United Nations sanctions were imposed after Libya refused to hand them over for trial. In a deal struck last year, the two finally were surrendered for trial, which began Wednesday at Camp Zeist.
Al Megrahi and Fahima have denied charges of murder, conspiracy to murder, and a breach of British aviation security laws.
It is alleged that the two were Malta-based Libyan intelligence agents who hid a bomb inside a radio-cassette recorder in a suitcase of clothes.
The suitcase was placed onboard a Frankfurt-bound flight at Malta airport, and in Germany was transferred to a Pan Am flight heading for London and then on to JFK airport in New York, according to the charge sheet.
An early theory explored - and apparently discarded - by investigators held that the PFLP-GC was contracted to carry out the bombing by Iran, in retaliation for the accidental shooting down of an Iranian airliner by a U.S. warship five months earlier.
Last November, the Libyans' lawyers applied for access to documents held by the British government, believed to incriminate Abu Talb.
Abu Talb, an original suspect in the Lockerbie investigation, was arrested in 1989 and jailed for his role in the 1985 bombing of U.S. airline offices at Copenhagen airport.
According to published accounts, police captured a PFLP-GC cell in West Germany months before the Lockerbie bombing, and discovered bombs similar to the one believed to have brought down flight 103, and planted inside a radio-cassette player identical to the one in which the Pan Am bomb was allegedly hidden - a Toshiba "BombBeat".
When Abu Talb was arrested in Sweden, police reportedly found a kitchen calendar at his home with the date of the Lockerbie bombing - December 21, 1988 - circled.
The 100-acre Camp Zeist has been designated Scottish territory for the duration of the trial, which could last more than a year. The British and American governments will share the costs, which could reach $240 million.
The prosecution has proposed calling more than 1,000 witnesses, and presenting some 1,500 documents and 550 other items of evidence. Defense counsel may call 119 witnesses.
Three Scottish judges are hearing the case, without a jury. A fourth judge will sit through the trial in case one of his colleagues dies or falls ill. Security for the judges is extremely high: they will not be allowed to travel together, and they will be transported to and from the Netherlands in military jets.
An attempt last week to delay the trial for eight weeks failed when one of the presiding judges turned down a prosecution application for more time to prepare.
The PFLP-GC, led by Ahmed Jibril, split in 1968 from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which was in turn a breakaway from Yasser Arafat's PLO.
According to the State Department's recently-released report on global terrorism, the group's primary focus now is on "guerrilla operations in southern Lebanon, small-scale attacks in Israel, West Bank, and Gaza Strip."
Headquartered in Damascus with bases in Lebanon, it receives logistic and military support from Syria and financial support from Iran, the State Department says.
Was Iran behind Lockerbie? (Apr 6 , 1999)