Who Killed Zia? (page 3)


September 1989

by Edward Jay Epstein

But it was still possible to come to some reasonable conclusions about what happened to Pak One, if not the precise cause. And there were still outstanding, however, disturbing pieces of evidence. A crucial piece missing in the puzzle was what had happened to the pilots during the final minutes of the flight because the accident investigators found that there was no black box or cockpit recorder on Pak One to recover. Yet, there were three other planes in the area tuned to the same frequency for communications-- General Beg's turbojet, which was waiting on the runway to take off next, Pak 379, which was the backup C-130 in case anything went wrong to delay Pak One, and a Cessna security plane that took off before Pak One to scout for terrorists. I managed to locate pilots of these planes-- all of whom were well acquainted with the flight crew of Pak One and its procedures-- who could listen to the conversation between Pak One and the control tower in Bahawalpur. They independently described the same sequence of events. First Pak One reported its estimated time of arrival in the capital. Then, when the control tower asked its position, it failed to respond. At the Same Time Pak 379 was trying unsuccessfully to get in touch with Pak One to verify its arrival time. All they heard from Pak One was "stand by" but no message followed. When this silence persisted, the control tower got progressively more frantic in its efforts to contact Zia's pilot, Wing Commander Mash'hood. Three or four minutes passed. Then, a faint voice in Pak One called out "Mash'hood, Mash'hood". One of the pilots overhearing this conversation recognized the voice. It was Zia's military secretary, Brigadier Najib Ahmed who apparently, from the weakness of his voice, was in the back of the flight deck (where a door connected to the VIP capsule.) What this meant that the radio was switched on and was picking up background sounds; in this sense, it was the next best thing to a cockpit flight recorder. Under these circumstances, the long silence between "stand bye" and the faint calls to Mash'hood, like the dog that didn't bark, was the relevant fact. Why wouldn't Mash'hood or the three other members of the flight crew spoken if they were in trouble? The pilots aboard the other planes, who were fully familiar Mash'hood, and the procedures he was trained in, explained that if Pak One's crew was conscious and in trouble they would not in any circumstances have remained silent for this period of time. If there had been difficulties with controls, Mash'hood instantly would have given the emergency "may day" signal so help would be dispatched to the scene. Even if he had for some reason chosen not to communicate with the control tower, he would have been heard shouting orders to his crew or alerting the passengers to prepare for an emergency landing. And if there had been an attempt at a hijacking in the cockpit or scuffle between the pilots, it would also be overheard. At the minimum, if the plane was crashing towards earth, screams or groans would have been heard. The radio must have been working since it picked up the brigadier's voice. In retrospect, the pilots had only one explanation for the prolonged silence: Mash'hood and the other pilots were either dead or unconscious while the microphone had been kept opened by the clenched hand of one of the pilots' on the thumb switch that operated.

I could not be ascertain if such tapes actually existed. If they did, the clarity could possibly enhanced to separate other background sounds from the static. Although one witness claimed that he had listened to recordings of these conversations after the crash to identify Mash'hood's voice, the control tower operators at Bahawalpur denied having recorded the conversations although they suggested it might have been taped by the Multan airport forty miles away.In any case, the account of the eyewitnesses at the crash site dove-tailed with the radio silence. They had seen, it will be recalled, the plane pitching up and down as if it were on a roller coaster. According to a C-130 expert I spoke to at Lockheed, C-130's characteristically go into a pattern known as a "phugoid" when no pilot is flying it. First, the unattended plane dives towards the ground, then the mechanism in the tail automatically over-corrects for this downward motion, causing it to head momentarily upwards. Then, with no one at the controls, it would veer downward. Each swing would become more pronounced until the plane crashed. Analyzing the weight on the plane, and how it had been loaded on, this expert calculated the plane would have made three roller-coaster turns before crashing, which is exactly what the witnesses had been reported. He concluded from this pattern that the pilots had been conscious, they would have corrected the "phugoid"-- at least would have made an effort, which would have been reflected in the settings of the controls. Since this had not happened, he concluded, like the pilots in the other planes, that they were unconscious. He suggested that this could be accomplished be planting a gas bomb in the air vent in the C-130, triggered to go off, when the plane took off and pressurized air was fed into the cockpit.

My investigations at the Bahawalpur airport showed that planting a gas bomb on the plane that day would not have entailed any insurmountable problems. Instead of following prescribed procedures and flying to the nearby air base at Multan where it could be guarded, Pak One had remained at the air strip that day. According to one inspector there, a repair crew, which included civilians, had worked on adjusting the cargo door of Pak One for two hours that morning. Its workers entered and left the plane without any sort of search. Any one of them could dropped a gas bomb into the air vent.

I also spoke to an American chemical warfare expert about poison gases that could have been used. He explained that Chemical agents capable of knocking a flight crew, while extremely difficult to obtain, are not beyond the reach of any intelligence service, or underground group with connections to one. He also pointed out that a gas capable on insidiously poisoning a whole flight crew (and leaving the pilot's fingers locked on the radio switch) had been used in neighboring Afghanistan. According to the State Department's special report 78 on "Chemical Warfare in Southeast Asia and Afghanistan," which he sent me, corpses of rebel Muejadeen guerrillas were found still holding their rifles in firing positions after being gassed. This showed that they had been the victims of "an extremely rapid acting lethal chemical that is not detectable by normal senses and that causes no outward physiological responses before death." This gas manufactured by the Soviet would have done the trick. But so would American manufactured "VX" nerve gas, according to a scientist at the U.S. Army chemical warfare center in Aberdeen, Maryland. "VX" is odorless, easily transportable in liquid form, and a soda-sized can full would be enough, when vaporized by a small explosion, and inhaled, to causes paralyzes and loss of speech within 30 seconds. According to him, the residue it would leave behind would be phosphorous. And, as it turned out, the chemical analyzes of debris from the cockpit showed heavy traces of phosphorous.

Such an act of sabotage would probably leave other detectable traces. The chemical agent that killed or paralyzed the pilots could probably be determined through an autopsy of their bodies. If it was a sophisticated nerve gas, it had to be obtained from one of the few countries that manufactures it, transported across international borders, and packaged with a detonator and fuse mechanism into bomb that would burst at the right moment after take off. All this could be trace back, just as the bomb on Pan Am 103 in Scotland was eventually identified and traced. Moreover, in Pakistan, the device had to be delivered to an agent capable of planting it on Pak One at a military air base. And someone had to supply him with intelligence about Zia's movements, the operations of Pak One, and the gaps in its security. Since access was limited to a few dozen persons, these people were vulnerable to discovery through an ordinary police investigation. Access to American intelligence resources, such as the technical labs of the FBI, the counter-terrorist profiles of the CIA, and the electronic eavesdropping archives of the National Security Agency, might also have helped locate the source of the intelligence (especially if it had been broadcast). But I found no such determined investigation took place.

To begin with, as noted by the Board of Inquiry, autopsies were never performed on the bodies of the flight crew. The explanation told to me by the Pentagon official, and apparently given in the secret report, was that Islamic law requires burial within 24 hours. But this could not been the real reason since the bodies were not returned to their families for burial until two days after the crash, as relatives confirmed to me. Nor were they ever asked permission for autopsy examinations. And, as I learned from a doctor for the Pakistan Air Force, Islamic law not withstanding, autopsies are routinely done on pilots in cases of air crashes. I further determined from sources at the military hospital in Bahawalpur that parts of the victims' bodies had been brought there in plastic body bags from the crash site on the night of August 17, and stored there, so that autopsies could be performed by team of American and Pakistani pathologists. On the afternoon of August 18,however, before the pathologists had arrived, the hospital received orders to return these plastic bags to the coffins for burial. The principal evidence of what happened to the pilots was thus purposefully buried.

The police investigation of those who had access to Pak One at the airport and were involved in its security, also appeared to be similarly curtailed. According to a security officer who was there that day, the ground personnel was not methodically questioned. Instead, they said in interviews almost uniformly that they were amazed that no one was interrogated. The only inquiry that they saw taking place was the inquiry by the American team. The questions by the Americans, which had to go through a Pakistani translator, were largely confined to the aircraft's maintenance and movements prior to take off. Other activities that day were not explored. For example, according to a police inspector at Bahawalpur, a policeman at the airstrip that day was found murdered shortly thereafter, but it was not connected to the air crash or, for that matter, resolved.

For its part, Pakistani military authorities attempted to foist a explanation that Shi'ite fanatics were responsible for the crash. The only basis for this theory was that the co-pilot of Pak One, Wing Commander Sajid, happened to have been a shi'ite (as are more than ten per cent of Pakistan's Moslems). The pilot of the back-up C-130, who also was a shi'ite, was then arrested by the military and kept in custody for more than two months while military interrogators tried to make his confess that he had persuaded Sajid to crash Pak One in a suicide mission. Even under torture, he denied this charge and insisted that, as far as he knew, Sajid was a loyal pilot who would not commit suicide. Finally, the army abandoned this effort the Air Force demonstrated that it would have been physically impossible for the co-pilot alone to have caused a C-130 to crash in the way it did. And if he had attempted to overpower the rest of the flight crew, the struggle certainly would have been heard over the radio. But why had the military attempted to cook up this shi'ite red herring?

There were other indications of efforts to limit or divert from the investigation, such as the destruction of telephone records of calls made to Zia and Rehman just prior to the crash, the reported disappearances of ISI intelligence files on Murtaza Bhutto, and the transfer of military personnel at Bahalapur, which, taken together, appeared to add up to a well-organized cover up. If so, I was persuaded that it had to be an inside job. The Soviet KGB and Indian R.A.W. Might have had the motive, and even the means, to bring down Pak One but neither had the ability to stop planned autopsies at a military hospital in Pakistan, stifle interrogations or, for that matter, kept the FBI out of the picture. The same is true of anti-Zia underground, such as Al-Zulfikar, although its agents, like the shi'ite, would provide plausible suspects ( or even, if provided convenient access to Pak One, fall guys.) Nor would any foreign intelligence service which was an enemy of Zia's have much of a motive for making it look like an accident rather than an assassination. Only elements inside Pakistan would have an obvious motive for making it the death of Zia, Rehman and 28 others look like something more legitimate than a coup d' etat.

The most eerie aspect of the affair was the speed and effectiveness with which it was consigned to oblivion. Even it involved the incineration of the principal ally of the U.S. in the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, the abrupt end of the American Ambassador and the head of its military mission in Pakistan were killed in the course of discharging their duties, and the government of one of the few remaining allies of the U.S. In Asia was abruptly changed; there little occurred in the way of repercussions. No outcries for vengeance, no efforts at counter coups, no real effort to find the assassins. In Pakistan, Zia and Rehman's names disappeared within days from television, newspapers and other media-- except on a few monuments in Afghan refugee camps that had not yet been painted over. In the United States, the State Department blocked any FBI interest in investigating the death of its Ambassador and, through press "guidance", distorted the event into just another foreign plane accident. The one uncounted casualty of Pak One was the truth.

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