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Detectives Testify About Lockerbie

May 9, 2000

CAMP ZEIST, Netherlands (AP) _ Scottish detectives who combed the forests around Lockerbie for debris from Pan Am Flight 103 testified Tuesday about how they recovered fragments of the suitcase that apparently contained the bomb. Lawyers challenged the reliability of their evidence.

The police admitted they were so overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of wreckage from the Dec. 21, 1988, explosion _ which killed 270 people and rained debris over 845 square miles _ that their tracking and labeling practices were flawed.

``It was a learning process,″ said Strathclyde constable Thomas Gilchrist, explaining why many police labels failed to report where, when and by whom each piece of evidence _ called productions in Scottish courts _ was found.

``It wasn’t practical to fill out a production label for each and every bag,″ he told the court.

The testimony came on the fifth day of the trial of two suspected Libyan intelligence operatives charged with the terrorist bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland.

Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah face life imprisonment if convicted of murder. They have pleaded innocent, accusing Syrian-backed Palestinian terrorists in the attack.

Prosecutors asked the detectives, who were involved in the early stages of the investigation, to describe the search.

``We had been told to look out for charred debris or anything that had been splintered or appeared to be torn apart by a large force,″ said now-retired detective Thomas McColm.

Detective Robert Thomson added that in early 1989 police were given specific instructions to find remnants of the brown, hard-shell Samsonite suitcase that investigators believed contained the bomb that blew the airplane apart.

Dozens of charred plastic and metal pieces, fragments of fabric and objects burned beyond recognition were carted into the courtroom in plastic bags and placed in front of the witnesses for identification.

Strathclyde constable Duncan McInnes identified several fragments that fit the suitcase description. He said he found them in Newcastleton Forest, a few miles from Lockerbie.

The strongest defense challenge came when Fhimah lawyer Richard Keen accused Gilchrist of altering the description on a piece of evidence from ``cloth″ to the more general term ``debris,″ apparently because a charred circuit board fragment had been attached to it.

``Did you or did you not alter this, Mr. Gilchrist?″ demanded Keen.

``On first examination I probably wrote down cloth,″ the witness said, adding: ``by mistake I probably overwrote it.″

Defense solicitors are trying to undermine the credibility of the evidence as prosecutors carefully attempt to build their case in the opening phase of the trial.

The trial, which began May 3, is expected to last a year. It is being held at a special Scottish court on a former U.S. Air Force base 40 miles east of Amsterdam as a result of a compromise with Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi following nearly a decade of economic sanctions.

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