By Peter Heinlein | VOA
ADDIS ABABA, ETHIOPIA — Ethiopian Airlines officials are closely following a report that a captured terrorism suspect has told of a bomb aboard a plane that crashed off the coast of Lebanon in January. Investigators have not determined the cause more than two months after the crash.
A report on a U.S. Internet Web site says British intelligence agents have reopened their investigation into the mysterious crash of an Ethiopian Airlines jet January 25. The Boeing 737 plunged into the Mediterranean Sea minutes after takeoff from Beirut airport, killing all 90 people aboard.
News reports initially quoted witnesses as saying the plane had broken up in the air and fallen into the sea in a ball of flames. But Lebanese officials immediately ruled out terrorism, and suggested pilot error was to blame.
The “G2 Bulletin” Web site, which calls itself an independent online intelligence newsletter reports an operative of the group al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula told interrogators the aircraft was destroyed by a suicide bomber trained in Yemen.
The operative is said to be among more than 100 terrorism suspects recently arrested in Saudi Arabia. He is reported to have told his captors the Beirut bomber trained in the same camp as Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to set off a bomb in his underwear on a plane landing in Detroit on Christmas Day.
Ethiopian Airlines chief Girma Wake has been critical of what he called premature and misleading speculation about the cause of the Beirut crash. In a telephone interview, he cautioned that this latest report must be checked thoroughly. But he said it raises questions about why Lebanese politicians were so quick to rule out foul play and blame pilot error.
“The very fact the Lebanese authorities were saying the aircraft exploded in the air, or when they say there was a trace of fire as it was coming down. All this leads you to check it. I’m not saying that is the cause, but it leads you to check this,” said Girma.
Girma declined to say what he thinks the cause may have been. He said, ‘if you rush to conclusions, they will be the wrong conclusions.’
News reports from Saudi Arabia say the recently arrested terrorism suspects were part of a network of al-Qaida-affiliated radicals that included two suicide bombing cells.
Mahboub Maalim, head of the six-nation East African regional economic group known as IGAD (Intergovernmental Authority on Development), says al-Qaida-linked terror cells in the Arabian Peninsula are working with like-minded groups in the Horn of Africa.
“We’re almost certain in Somalia the group al-Shabab is not a Somali group any more, and we think a lot of other nationalities are there in the name of that cell, the al-Qaida cell, and definitely we feel there is also a link with the group in Yemen,” note Maalim.
A statement from the Saudi interior ministry last week said the recently arrested terrorism suspects were plotting attacks on oil and security installations. Saudi Arabia is the world’s biggest oil exporter.
There has been little speculation about any terrorism motive in connection with the Ethiopian Airlines crash. But experts have noted that the crash occurred almost exactly five years after the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, after whom Beirut’s airport is named.
A Special Tribunal into the Hariri killing is reported nearing a conclusion that would bring the perpetrators to justice. An earlier United Nations backed probe said it had found evidence implicating senior officials of the Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services.