Libyan authorities open up to Dutch investigators
The Libyan regime is trying hard to show its best side to the Dutch investigators on the scene of the air crash that killed 70 of their compatriots.
The Tripoli air crash is remarkable for a number of reasons. Not because of
the high toll in human lives it has taken, or because its cause still
remains a mystery. These conditions tend to be the rule rather than the
exception. What makes this crash special is the reverence curious visitors
are treated to. In February of last year, Dutch authorities were quick to
shield the site of a Turkish Airlines crash from prying eyes. But in Tripoli
on Thursday, a Dutch delegation was allowed to wander for hours unchecked
amidst the debris.
The backdrop was a barren plot of land in Libya. Dry brushwood dotted the peach-coloured sand. In the distance, the runways of a cluttered airport could be made out. Birds chirped as the hot summer sun beat down on the desert. In the middle of it all were hundreds of thousands of pieces of debris, stretching out in a ribbon over almost a kilometre. Amongst the parts of the destroyed aircraft lay crumpled jeans, an elegant pink shoe and bikini, a language guide, a ragged stuffed animal and a wooden fork shaped like a giraffe.
Larger pieces of debris were easier to spot: the plane's tail, an engine, the cockpit and two charred wings. Other recognisable parts of the airplane included earplugs, chairs, a remote control, and a sheet with safety instructions. Add to that all the unrecognisable bits of twisted metal that, apparently, once made up an entire aircraft.
Cause remains a mystery
But, to the naked eye, the debris raises more questions than it answers. Who can explain why fire has raged in one part and not another? Or how two shoes from the same pair were thrown hundreds of metres apart? Nobody can. At least not yet. Why this plane disintegrated in mid-air shortly before landing remains a mystery. The question why one nine-year-old Dutch boy was the only person to survive can probably never be answered.
Libyan rescue workers had already carried the remains of the crash's 103 victims to two morgues on Wednesday. A day later, the crash site was still littered with latex gloves and mouth caps, but not a single drop of blood was anywhere to be found. Most personal items had been collected as well, to help identify the bodies.
On Thursday, not a single investigator was spotted anywhere near the wreckage. Only a few Libyan soldiers and police officers stood idly by in the shade. Perhaps the Libyan authorities hoped to cast themselves in a positive light by letting the press run free throughout the crash site. It was odd that Dutch journalists were eagerly granted access to Libya, a country generally reluctant to issue visas. A delegation from the Dutch foreign affairs office received a warm welcome upon arrival at a military airport, which looked as though it has only just been cleaned. The smell of air freshener was overwhelming. The floors were still wet.
Making nice with the Libyans
Daan Noort, in charge of the Dutch National Forensic Investigation Team, which hopes to identify victims of the crash, said his team was received Thursday night "more warmly than anticipated". He added that the Libyans had also exceeded his expectations when it came to the manner in which they had recovered the victims' bodies. The Dutch safety board has also praised the openness of the Libyan team in charge of the investigation.
On Wednesday night, before leaving the Netherlands, the men in both delegations joked that they were happy not to be Swiss. Since the Geneva police arrested Hannibal Gaddafi, a son of the Libyan leader, on suspicion of assault in July 2008, the Libyans have been livid at the alpine nation. Libya has taken a number of punitive measures against Switzerland since, including trade restrictions, and has practically taken two Swiss bankers hostage. One Dutch forensic investigator recalled that the infamous Lockerbie trial against two Libyans, while tried in a Scottish court, took place on Dutch soil. Perhaps Tripoli had not yet forgotten about that.
According to top Dutch foreign affairs official Ed Kronenburg, Dutch relations with Tripoli are "currently normal". There is a Dutch embassy in the capital, and Libya maintains a diplomatic post in The Hague, which was recently "upgraded" to an embassy. According to Kronenburg, Dutch representatives were welcomed into the country after the crash, but Libya was "not so keen" about the arrival of journalists. "It made the authorities a little nervous," he said. Kronenburg's advice: "Stick to the disaster. This is not the time to start a dialogue over human rights for the foreign affairs department either."
Still a dictatorship
Libya is, of course, still a dictatorship. The oil-rich nation has been ruled for 41 years with an iron fist by colonel Muammar Gaddafi . His portrait is everywhere. The Dutch delegation is also constantly surrounded by hordes of men sporting gilded framed glasses and black moustaches, who could be relaying all sorts of information to any secret service.
But the dictatorship is trying to show its good side at present. On Thursday, school classes visited the Libyan hospital to drop off floral arrangements intended for the crash's sole survivor. In front of the entrance, a driver handed out cooled water to anyone interested. "How is that little boy doing?" he wondered out loud. At least, he observed, he was being treated in "the best hospital in northern Africa".
But the newsstands did not attest to a similar interest. Of the 15 Arabic newspapers lining the stands, only one had a picture of the air disaster on its front page. The papers knew better than to discuss the failings of the airline company. But the boy saved in a Libyan hospital, the "Miracle of Tripoli," was splashed over many a front page in the Netherlands.