- Lockerbie bombing - Scotland - terrorism - UK
AFP - Britain was commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Lockerbie bombing Sunday, recalling the night a US-bound jet carrying 259 passengers and crew was blown up over a Scottish town.
Memorial services are scheduled to take place from 1400 GMT in the small, quiet community of some 4,000 people, where 11 people were also killed on the ground as flaming debris from the plane crushed houses.
Relatives of the dead are expected to attend a service at London's Heathrow Airport, where Pan Am Flight 103 took off on the night of December 21, 1988, carrying mostly Americans home for Christmas.
Barely 40 minutes into the flight to New York, the Boeing 747 was ripped apart by a bomb in the luggage hold at an altitude of 9,400 metres (31,000 feet), killing everyone on board.
Lockerbie residents recall the explosion turning the sky orange and wreckage, fuel and bodies raining down.
The town had unwittingly been caught up in international terror.
The tortuous investigation into the bombing eventually led to the jailing for 27 years of a former Libyan intelligence officer, Abdelbaset Ali Mohmet Al-Megrahi.
He is serving his sentence in a prison in Scotland -- now suffering from cancer, he recently failed in an attempt to be released.
The bombing killed 180 Americans, an unprecedented toll in an age before the attacks of September 11, 2001, and plunged ties between Libya and the West into a chill which has only recently thawed.
Libya has now been welcomed back into the international fold, but some Lockerbie residents continue to be haunted by memories of the night the jet crashed from the skies on to a town decked out in Christmas decorations.
"It was the nearest thing to hell I ever want to see," said retired police inspector George Stobbs, 74, who had just returned home when he saw a TV newsflash.
Heading to nearby Sherwood Crescent, where the 11 residents perished, he recalled: "There was this great crater, a great mass of burning. The heat was intense. I saw an iron gate melting as if someone was putting a blow torch on to butter."
Maxwell Kerr, 72, remembers finding poignant reminders of the passengers.
"It was families going home at Christmas. We did find lots of Christmas presents lying scattered about. There was men, women, children and babies. It's horrific when you think about it," he said.
The link to Libya was uncovered by investigators who painstakingly traced material from the Samsonite suitcase in which the explosives were planted inside a radio-cassette player.
They found that the bomb had probably been placed on board in Frankfurt, from a non-Pan Am flight which connected with the doomed aircraft at Heathrow.
In fact, Flight 103 was late taking off -- if it had been on schedule it would have been over the Atlantic when the bomb detonated, sparing the town of Lockerbie and probably leaving the plane's remains at the bottom of the ocean.
Al-Megrahi and co-accused Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah were eventually tracked down in an international manhunt by Scottish police and the CIA, although it took years of diplomatic wrangling to put them on trial.
An extraordinary court was set up in the Netherlands and Al-Megrahi was tried and convicted by Scottish judges, while Fhimah was acquitted.