Plane explosion over Thailand blamed on bomb


BANGKOK, Thailand -- Western security officials surveyed the wreckage yesterday of an Austrian airliner that crashed in northern Thailand and said they were nearly certain that the plane was downed by a bomb explosion.

"All the available evidence points to a bomb," a Western official said. "The pieces of the plane wreckage were literally tiny and spread out over a wide area."

"It was far, far worse than Lockerbie," said a Western airline official familiar with the investigation into the crash of a Pan Am Boeing 747 that exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, on Dec. 21, 1988.

That plane, which carried 270 passengers and crew members, was later found to have been downed by a bomb apparently placed aboard in Frankfurt, Germany, and believed to have been the action of terrorists from the Middle East.

Franz Karner, Hong Kong sales manager for Lauda-Air, the airline that owned the Boeing 767-300 jet, told a news conference in the British colony yesterday that the plane appeared to have been destroyed by an explosion and subsequent fireball on board. Asked if he thought it was a bomb, he replied, "It looks like it."

All 223 people were killed when it exploded in the air Sunday night and crashed into remote hilly jungle near the provincial town of Suphan Buri, 120 miles northwest of Bangkok.

Rescue workers recovered 140 bodies from the wreckage yesterday from the 1,500-foot heights in northwestern Thailand. The plane's "black box" flight recorder also was recovered, but the investigation was hampered by hundreds of Thais who rushed to the site to scavenge for valuables.

During the Persian Gulf war, Western intelligence pinpointed Bangkok as a possible staging site for terrorism, and security at the capital's Don Muang Airport was tightened.

Security officers noted that Lauda-Air conducted no baggage screening in Bangkok. Baggage for all airlines is X-rayed before loading in Hong Kong.

Austria maintains international neutrality, and if anything is considered among the most friendly of European countries to Arab governments, including some that have been accused of supporting terrorism.

Western airline officials in Bangkok said it had long been known that a disgruntled former employee of Lauda-Air had repeatedly threatened to bomb the airline's offices and aircraft. The employee, whose name was not released, was reportedly being sought by police.

Vienna police discounted another theory that the bomb may have been intended for a United Airlines flight and that it was placed on the Austrian plane by mistake.

Airline officials noted that Lauda-Air, which was founded in 1982 by former world motor racing champion Niki Lauda, could be ruined financially by the explosion.

Even with insurance coverage on the $60 million aircraft, Lauda-Air flies just a handful of scheduled flights from Vienna to Asia. Fear of terrorism could force passengers to cancel holiday plans, which would devastate the airline's earnings and threaten its survival, even for a short drop in revenue, experts said.

Mr. Lauda said yesterday that he was leaving for Thailand immediately to speak with investigators.

The Boeing jet was only 18 months old. Boeing officials said it was the first crash involving the two-engine airliner.

Seattle-based Boeing said it was sending a team of investigators to examine the crash site.

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