Flight 409 Crash: Putting Politicians Ahead of Victims

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Debris from Flight 409 was recovered by divers across the Lebanese coastline. (Photo: Haytham al-Moussawi)

By: Bassam Alkantar

Published Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Leaked US Embassy cables reveal that American officials were briefed about secret findings of investigation into airline crash long before official report is out or family members where fully informed.

Lebanese Minister of Public Works and Transportation Ghazi Aridi set November 10 as the tentative date for the release of the report on the crash of the Ethiopian Airlines Flight 409. But findings in the report were already hinted at to US officials in Beirut.

The Boeing 737 had taken off from Beirut en route to Addis Ababa before it crashed into the Mediterranean Sea on 25 January 2010, killing all 90 on board.

A cable from the US embassy in Beirut published by WikiLeaks on August 30, [10Beirut154], dated 17 February 2010, and written by US ambassador to Lebanon Michele Sison, reveals that Dennis Jones, US representative of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and a member of the committee investigating the Ethiopian airplane crash, disclosed to the ambassador information secret to the investigation. Jones criticized Lebanese authorities for what he described as their poor handling of the investigation. He also foreclosed the likelihood of placing blame on the Ethiopian pilots for the crash.

The cable indicates that Jones informed the American embassy in Beirut that the investigation and its results will cause “hard times for the Ethiopian airlines.” Jones told embassy officials that “public relations are the weakest part of the GOL response to the accident.” He added that “what is unique here is that you had responsible people saying irresponsible things on a daily basis." He said that the Lebanese government had not spoken with a coordinated voice, which had made the post-crash period extremely difficult for victims' families.

Jones added that the lead official for the investigation Hamdi Chaouk (Director General of Civil Aviation) told him he withheld some information from Aridi while directly informing Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri.

Jones, whose name the cable requests to “strictly protect” also said that “he and the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) and Boeing team members had done the heavy lifting on the investigation, and were essentially writing the report on its findings for the Lebanese.”

The cable adds that Jones, prior to leaving Lebanon, confided in his interlocutors at the embassy that the investigation will “fault the Ethiopian pilots, both of whom were inexperienced.”

In addition, the cable states that poor communication between Chaouk and the Lebanese armed forces led to the week long delay in locating the wreckage of the plane.

Lebanese and Ethiopian authorities have traded blame for the tragedy. According to Aridi, a meeting regarding the crash on August 11 was postponed due to health issues preventing the Ethiopian delegation from attending. The Ethiopians eventually arrived in Beirut on August 19 and held meetings with the head of the Lebanese delegation, Captain Mohammad Aziz.

Work with the Ethiopian delegation was to continue into Monday, August 22. But Aridi surprisingly announced that the Ethiopian delegation had inexplicably left Lebanon without informing Captain Aziz. Aridi says more will be revealed when the report is published. He says he has kept a diary of events since the incident took place.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


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