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The BBC's Joshua Rozenberg
"The trial is the result of breathtaking diplomacy"
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Wednesday, 3 May, 2000, 16:14 GMT 17:14 UK
Lockerbie plane's final moments
Richard Dawson
Air traffic controller Richard Dawson - first to give evidence
Air traffic controllers have described the final harrowing moments before Pan Am 103 exploded on the first day of the Lockerbie trial.

They were the first witnesses to give evidence at the special Scottish court hearing where two Libyans have been accused of causing the deaths of all 259 on board and 11 on the ground.

Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi, 48, and Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah, 44, have pleaded not guilty to the crime.

I was assuming his radio transmitter was faulty. I hoped he could hear me and hopefully indicate to me that he could hear me

Alan Todd
In a special defence, they have alleged that they know those responsible for the atrocity and have named a number of individuals and organisations.

These include the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Palestinian Popular Struggle Front.

The Boeing 747's final contact was with air traffic controller Alan Topp, now 64 and retired.

Reading from air traffic control transcripts covering the crucial period between 1855GMT and 1915GMT on 21 December 1988, Mr Topp said he exchanged routine information.

Final movements

He gave the aircraft an identification number and directed it towards the pilot's "entry point" for the journey out across the North Atlantic.

The aircraft was flying at 31,000ft at the time.

Then the court was shown the radar transmission of the flight's progress - on television screens.

Mr Topp talked the court through its final movements, pointing out that at 1901GMT the clipper "Maid of the Seas" was "just at the corner of the Solway Firth".

At 1902GMT it "crossed the northern coast of the Solway Firth".

A relative of one of the accused is led to public gallery
At 1903GMT, the plane's height readout disappeared from the display but Mr Topp said that could have been just "a glitch".

However, as the plane's serial number disappeared from the screen too, Mr Topp quietly told the court: "And then we lose everything."

He added: "I was assuming his radio transmitter was faulty. I hoped he could hear me and hopefully indicate to me that he could hear me."

But when there was no response Mr Topp contacted a nearby KLM flight, which also tried without success to reach Pan AM 103.

All the time the radar screen was showing signs of the plane's break-up, a series of bright squares on the screen could be seen moving steadily eastwards with the wind.

Radar image

At the moment the plane's call-sign disappeared from the screen, he had noticed a "very intense primary response" - a brighter-than-usual blip on the screen marking the spot where Pan Am 103 had been.

What it actually was, he explained, was a series of bright squares overlapping.

Gradually, as the seconds passed they spread out across the screen.

By 1915GMT those images represented only the smaller pieces from the explosion and Mr Topp said: "The main pieces had already hit the ground."

Police search the cockpit of PanAm flight 103 for clues
Debris was scattered for miles
Earlier on Wednesday, the first witness gave evidence - air traffic controller Richard Dawson who was on duty at Heathrow Airport when the New York-bound flight took off at 1818GMT.

He described how he guided the plane to runway 27 and, following routine exchanges with the pilot, the plane was airborne.

Mr Dawson, 52, then read to the specially-built court at Camp Zeist, near Utrecht, a brief transcript of exchanges between Heathrow tower and the plane.

After take-off, the pilot radioed that he was airborne and Mr Dawson replied "Goodnight".

He told the court: "I had no further contact with Pan Am 103."

Scottish law

Mr Dawson was just the first of more than 1,000 prosecution witnesses scheduled to be called in the trial which is expected to last more than a year.

Similar accounts were also given by air traffic controllers Robin Hill, 44, and Steven Smith.

Police officers and Lockerbie residents will also be among the first group of witnesses giving evidence to the trial being heard under Scottish law.

It is alleged that the two accused were Libyan intelligence agents who hid a bomb in a radio-cassette recorder in a suitcase of clothes.

Relatives of those who died have already arrived in the Netherlands for the start of the trial, which is being held amid tight security.

In a unique move, the camp has been designated as Scottish territory for the duration of the trial, which will be presided over by three judges without a jury.

The trial continues.

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See also:

03 May 00 | World
Lockerbie accused deny murder
03 May 00 | World
Emotional time for relatives
03 May 00 | World
No viewers for trial screening
18 Apr 00 | Lockerbie Trial
Doors open on Lockerbie court
02 May 00 | Middle East
Libya: From pariah to participant
03 May 00 | World
Waiting ends as trial begins
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