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Threatened Northwest Flight Takes Off For Detroit With 42 Aboard

December 30, 1989

PARIS (AP) _ A nearly empty Northwest Airlines DC-10 took off for Detroit today, despite a bomb threat that persuaded 105 people to cancel their bookings, leaving just 42 people on board.

The Paris to San Francisco flight, with change of planes in Detroit, carried 14 crew members and 28 passengers, three of whom were journalists making the trip to report on the threatened flight.

A steady stream of passengers had changed their travel plans after hearing news reports of threats against Flight 51 in retaliation for the bombing convictions of two Palestinians. Northwest offered to allow passengers to change to other flights or airlines with no penalty.

The plane left Charles de Gaulle airport at 2:45 p.m. (8:45 a.m. EST), more than two hours late because of fog.

Close scrutiny of every piece of hand luggage being put aboard caused a brief initial delay, but then the plane was held up by fog that was disrupting all flights at the airport and caused some flights to be canceled.

The Saudi newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat reported today that Spanish authorities had information that Moslem extremists planned to use surface-to-air missiles to attack Arab and French passenger planes.

The newspaper, quoting investigators in Madrid, said the information was developed following last month’s seizure of arms caches apparently intended for terrorist attacks in Europe.

Spanish police have refused to comment on similar reports in Spanish newspapers, saying their inquiry is confidential. There was no indication of a connection between the Saudi report and the Northwest flight.

Many passengers requested transfers to other flights when they arrived at Northwest’s check-in desk at mid-morning today.

″I would have been on pins and needles the whole way,″ said Camille Major, 21, of Madison, Wis., who was headed home after three weeks in Europe.

″Six hundred dollars isn’t worth my life,″ she said. ″My vacation was bad and this just tops it off.″

The Hsia family of Foster City, Calif., near San Francisco, arrived at the airport about 10 a.m. unaware of the bomb threat.

The family of four held discussions about whether to change airlines.

″My mom changed her mind three times, but we’re going,″ said 17-year-old Eddie Hsia, baseball cap tipped back on his head. ″My dad follows what my mom says.″

Security at the airport was extremely tight, as armed officers of the air and border police and riot police with leashed dogs shepherded the passengers through scrupulous check-in procedures. Each piece of luggage was X-rayed on freeze-frame video machines.

Even a small souvenir bust of Napoleon was put on the belt and X-rayed separately.

The DC-10 can hold 284 passengers. Northwest originally had 130 seats booked, but cancellations started pouring in Friday after news reports described the bomb threat against the plane.

Northwest announced the threat Thursday, but said the FBI asked that no details be disclosed.

ABC News, quoting sources it did not identify, reported Thursday night that a man with a ″Middle Eastern accent″ made the threat to Northwest’s Detroit office, saying the bombing would be in retaliation for life sentences given two Palestinians convicted in Sweden of charges connected with a string of bombings in Europe.

One of the two, Abu Mohammed Talb, is a suspect in the December 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, which exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland.

He and co-defendant Marten Imandi were sentenced to life for their part in the 1985 bombing of a Northwest office in Copenhagen that killed one person and wounded 20, one of four bombings in Denmark and the Netherlands for which they were convicted.

In Washington, Federal Aviation Administration spokesman John Leyden said officials were ″working with Northwest and with the French authorities to ensure there is extra security on the flight.″

Pierre Quilici, deputy chief of France’s Air and Border Police, said U.S. authorities had passed on word of the threat several days ago. He said he could not disclose any special security measures planned to protect the flight.

Airline spokesman Robert Gibbons said Northwest originally agreed to a request by security agencies not to make the threat public. But then a report of the threat came out of Europe.

The FAA has a policy of not alerting the public to security threats unless they are very specific and the flight involved is not being canceled. The Northwest threat appeared to meet conditions that would allow disclosure.

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