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Last Updated: Tuesday, 19 August, 2003, 13:18 GMT 14:18 UK
UTA 772: The forgotten flight

by Paul Reynolds
BBC News Online World Affairs correspondent

The tragedy of UTA Flight 772, blown up over the Sahara desert in 1989, has often been forgotten amid the attention given to the fate of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie the previous year.

But it is this event which is behind the French reluctance to agree to the lifting of UN sanctions against Libya.

UTA 772 was flying from Brazzaville to Paris
The French government accepted a much lesser compensation deal, not negotiated directly with Libya, but ordered by a Paris court in 1999.

This court found six Libyans guilty in their absence and sentenced them to life imprisonment.

Instead of the $10m per victim which the Americans and British have negotiated for the Pan Am explosion, the court awarded the families of the UTA victims sums ranging from 3,000 to 30,000 euros, depending on their relationship to the dead.

Not that the relatives are giving up.

SOS Attentats, a French organisation of victims of terrorist attacks, has pursued the Libyan government, not primarily for money but for a judgment against the Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi himself.

It is a pity that Libya has managed to buy its impunity. It is not a good way of dealing with terrorism
Francoise Rudetski SOS Attentats
Its president, Francoise Rudetski, who herself was injured in an explosion in a restaurant in 1983, told News Online: "It is a pity that Libya has managed to buy its impunity. It is not a good way of dealing with terrorism."

SOS Attentats has, despite its reservations about compensation, handed over its documents to lawyers acting for the families of the seven American UTA victims.

One of those who died was Bonnie Barnes Pugh, wife of the US Ambassador to Chad.

She had been on her way back home to help plan her daughter's wedding.

Last October these families launched a lawsuit demanding $2.2b in compensation from Libya.

Colonel Gaddafi and 6 Libyans said to be intelligence agents were named in the suit.

The story of UTA 772

The 53-page document lodged with the federal district court in Washington DC tells the story of UTA 772.

It has remarkable parallels with that of Pan Am 103.

On 19 September 1989, the UTA plane was bound for Paris from Congo Brazzaville in Central Africa.

It exploded over the Sahara desert in southern Niger killing all 170 people on board.

An examination of 15 tons of wreckage sent to France revealed traces of an explosive called pentrite in the forward hold.

Then a dark grey Samsonite suitcase was found covered with a layer of pentrite.

This was determined to be the source of the explosion. It had been loaded at Brazzaville.

Also found was a small piece of a green coloured circuit board which turned out to be a timing device.

It was traced back to Libya though a marketing company which, according to the document, had been asked to provide 100 of them for one of the Libyan defendants named in the lawsuit.

A similar link to Libya was made in the Lockerbie case.

Then, the document says, investigators "obtained confessions from one of the terrorists who took part in the attack."

He was said to be a Congolese opposition figure, who helped another of the Libyan defendants to recruit a fellow dissident to get the suitcase on the plane.

The Libyan motive was said to be revenge on the French government for supporting Chad in a border dispute with Libya.


The lawsuit alleges that the Libyans tried to throw the French investigating judge off the scent by pretending that one of the suspects was dead.

They also showed him a Samsonite suitcase which they said had been captured from a Libyan opposition group.

But, for the judge, this merely confirmed that Libya had access to such a suitcase.

The document claims that two Libyan spies, one code-named Piebald, had told Britain's intelligence agency MI6 that Colonel Gaddafi had personally ordered the attacks on both aircraft.

The American plane had been selected, it was claimed, in revenge for the American raid on Libya in 1986 in which Colonel Gaddafi's adopted daughter had been killed.

Eventually a special court in Paris found six Libyans guilty.

They were not in court themselves since Libya had refused to hand them over.

One of them was named as Abdullah Sanussi, a brother in law to Colonel Gaddafi and head of Libya's external intelligence organisation.

Subsequently, SOS Attentats tried to get a ruling against the Colonel himself but the court ruled that as a head of state he had immunity.

The French government decision not to join the US and UK in their approach to Libya probably had to do with a wish to distance France from the United States and its main European ally.

That decision now carries its own penalties.

It has also meant that UTA 772 became, other than for those it directly affected, the forgotten flight.

The BBC's Greg Barrow
"All eyes will be on France"

Libya admits Lockerbie blame
16 Aug 03  |  Scotland
Libya letter: Full text
16 Aug 03  |  Scotland
Libya agrees Lockerbie deal
14 Aug 03  |  Scotland


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