Athens — The investigation into the midair bombing of TWA Flight 840 Wednesday has become an international affair. Investigators have arrived from the United States and Italy to work with Greek authorities. Despite working virtually around the clock to discover what happened and who is responsible, the investigators do not seem any closer to the truth. Rumors and theories abound.
Four people were killed in the explosion and nine were injured. A pro-Libyan group calling itself the Arab Revolutionary Cells claimed responsibility for the attack.
Attention here has focused on the remarks of Italian Interior Minister Oscar Scalfaro, who said yesterday that a ``known Arab terrorist,'' referred to as ``Mansur,'' was on the plane on its initial journey from Cairo to Athens on the morning of the bombing. Mr. Scalfaro said, ``New evidence has emerged. It is certain that a suspect, known as a terrorist, got on at Cairo and got off at Athens, occupying in the plane exactly the place where the explosion occurred.''
Later yesterday, TWA spokesman Richard Heckscher confirmed that US and Greek authorities are looking for a man or woman named ``Mansur'' as a prime suspect. He cited a report which claimed a woman, an explosives expert named May, traveling under the alias Mansur, boarded the TWA flight in Egypt and disembarked on its initial stop in Athens. She is thought to have remained in the terminal for several hours before boarding another flight for Beirut.
In informal comments to reporters, Richard Petersen, the flight's pilot, said he feared ``the consequences'' if the plane had been cruising at a normal attitude around 29,000 feet. The plane was making an approach to Athens airport and was only 15,000 feet up. Aviation experts here say the plane probably would have broken up if it had been much higher.
[Meanwhile in Washington, the International Airline Pilots Association announced plans to call for a worldwide pilots' boycott of countries linked to terrorism. Spokesman Thomas Ashwood said the boycott will be proposed at the group's London meeting next Thursday.]
As the initial shock over the bombing has faded, a mood of frustration has settled over Athens. Officials are troubled that no one seems capable of finding a way to prevent such terrorist incidents, despite impressive new security precautions adopted over the last year and increased international cooperation in the fight against terrorism.
Greek officials were dismayed that, despite beefed up security measures and improved procedures following the hijack of a TWA plane out of Athens airport last June, an EgyptAir flight was seized by terrorists five months later.
As one Greek source in Athens said on Thursday, ``We want to find out who did it, of course, but in the end, it is more important to find out how he did it.''
Officials in both Rome and Athens have speculated that the attack may have been linked to last week's military confrontation between the US and Libya in the Gulf of Sidra in the eastern Mediterranean.
Greek authorities are also worried about the consequences that the most recent terrorist incident might have on Greek tourism, one of the largest and healthiest sectors of the economy. At a time of national austerity and high unemployment, a further decline in tourism could be devastating for the Greek economy.
After the hijacking of the TWA airliner out of Athens last year, President Reagan issued a travel advisory, suggesting that travelers avoid Athens airport until security was improved. Though the advisory was later lifted, it resulted in thousands of flight cancellations.
In subsequent months, the hijacking of the Italian cruise liner Achille Lauro, the EgyptAir hijacking, and attacks at the airports in Rome and Vienna increased perception among many Western tourists, in particular Americans, that the eastern Mediterranean region is unsafe.
Greek tourist authorities say the Greek economy lost more than $350 million last year because of cancellations, principally by Americans. Travelers from the US account for up to 50 percent of the foreign exchange earnings that tourism brings to Greece each year.
Greek officials were delighted when US Secretary of State George Shultz said last week that Athens is a safe place to visit. They said signs of improvement in Greek tourism had begun to appear and that Shultz's statement would only help.
After Wednesday's bombing, Greek tourist officials and businessmen fear their hopes may be dashed. As one tourist official, who asked not to be identified, said, ``It's kind of like Sisyphus. You push the stone up the steep hill, and when you seem near the top, it rolls down again and you have to start all over again.''