CAMP ZEIST, Netherlands -- Two alleged Libyan intelligence agents pleaded innocent at the opening of their trial today for blowing up Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, claiming Palestinian terrorists were responsible.
In a statement read by the clerk of the Scottish court, the defense alleged that other terrorist organizations, including a Syrian-based Palestinian group, set the bomb that killed 270 people in the world's worst act of air terrorism.
The plea came within minutes after Scottish High Court judge, Lord Ranald Sutherland, opened the proceedings against defendants Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah, who surrendered for trial last year following nearly a decade of sanctions against Libya.
If convicted of murder or endangering the safety of a commercial aircraft, al-Megrahi and Fhimah face a mandatory life sentence in a Scottish prison.
The defense statement named Mohammed Abu Talb, a Palestinian serving a life sentence in Sweden for earlier bombings in Denmark and the Netherlands, as one of 10 other alleged conspirators. Talb was an early suspect in the case, but investigators abandoned that line of inquiry.
The defense also said the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine -- General Command, led by Ahmed Jibril, and a group identified only as PPSF were behind the Lockerbie bombing.
Prosecutor Colin Boyd called a British air traffic controller as the first witness to testify. Richard Ellis James Dawson, 52, a 33-year veteran of the British Civil Aviation authority, was on duty at Heathrow Airport on the night the plane crashed in flames into the Scottish town.
Dawson described routine procedures for departures from Heathrow and radar control technology allowing controllers to track the aircraft.
Earlier, members of the court rose as the judges, wearing a white wigs and dressed in flowing ivory robes with embroidered red crosses, were led into the chamber by a sentry bearing a silver mace, the ceremonial staff symbolizing authority in Scottish courts.
''It is time for justice. We want to hold the government responsible, not these guys,'' Bruce Smith, an American whose British wife, Ingrid, was killed in the crash, said as he walked into the courtroom. ''I am convinced that they have a good case against the Libyan government. This should be the start, not the end.''
The sleek, state-of-the-art courtroom, built over the past year at a cost of $18 million to British taxpayers, provides computer monitors for all judges, lawyers, defendants, and clerks to view exhibits and follow the court transcript in real time.
Wireless headphones were available for the defendants so that they could listen to the proceedings via simultaneous translation in Arabic.
For more than 11 years, investigators have pursued a trail of evidence across Europe and the Mediterranean to the defendants.
The proceedings, expected to last about a year, follow the largest international murder investigation on record, with officials interviewing 15,000 witnesses in more than 20 countries and sifting through 180,000 pieces of evidence since the blast.
All 259 passengers and crew members -- including 189 Americans heading home -- were killed along with 11 residents of Lockerbie some 38 minutes after the New York-bound jumbo jet took off from London's Heathrow airport at 6:25 p.m. on that Dec. 21, 1988.
Camp Zeist, an old U.S. air base 40 miles southeast of Amsterdam, has been declared Scottish sovereign territory for the duration of the trial.
It was chosen as a venue in a U.N.-brokered compromise following years of sanctions aimed at forcing Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi to hand over the suspects, who were indicted in November 1991.
More than 30 American victims' relatives received front-row seats in the public gallery.
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