A confessed Palestinian terrorist startled a Beirut courtroom Monday by claiming he carried out the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 that killed 270 people.
Youssef Shaaban, 29, a follower of terrorist leader Abu Nidal's Fatah-Revolutionary Council, made the claim during his trial on a charge of assassinating a Jordanian diplomat in Beirut in January.Shaaban offered no details to substantiate his assertion. The bombing has in the past been blamed variously on Iran, then Syria and then Libya, which has been targeted by international sanctions.
"I personally blew up the Lockerbie plane," Shaaban told the Judicial Council, Lebanon's highest trial court. "I've told the investigating magistrate about it before, but my confession wasn't documented. I say it again now."
There was no indication whether the magistrate, Saeed Mirza, took Shaaban's claim seriously.
Court sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, speculated Shaaban might have been instructed by Abu Nidal to make the claim to take the heat over the bombing off Libya, chief backer of the terrorist group. Abu Nidal is believed to be living in Libya.
Jim Swire, a spokesman for British relatives of Flight 103 victims, said Shaaban's claim "should be regarded with grave suspicion."
"It could be that he is seeking to attract what terrorists might regard as kudos for the Abu Nidal organization," said Swire, whose daughter, Flora, was killed in the bombing.
The bomb ripped apart a Pan Am Boeing 747 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie on Dec. 21, 1988, as it flew from London toward New York. All 259 people aboard and 11 people on the ground died.
Abdel Basset Ali Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah, both suspected Libyan intelligence agents, have been charged in Britain and the United States in the bombing. The two countries demanded Libya hand over the two suspects for trial in either country.
Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi refused to comply, saying the men could not get a fair trial in those countries. That led the U.N. Security Council to impose sanctions against Libya beginning in April 1992.
In London, the British Foreign Office said that "as we have said many times in the past, we believe there is a case to be answered in a court in Scotland or the United States by the two Libyans."
There was no immediate reaction from the U.S. government.
Shaaban said in his testimony Monday that he belonged to Abu Nidal's group.
Abu Nidal, whose real name is Sabri el-Banna, tops the most-wanted list in the United States, Europe and some Arab countries for killing dozens of people.