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Controversies Mount Over Cause of Plane Crash in Bosnia

February 28, 2004

By Christopher Deliso

Macedonian Prime Minister Branko Crvenkovski, together with Interior Minister Hari Kostov today took a Serbian aircraft to Sarajevo, to meet with Bosnian and SFOR officials and expedite the return of the bodies of President Boris Trajkovski and the 8 others killed with him when their small plane crashed near Mostar on Thursday morning.

Simultaneously, Macedonia’s civil aviation authority reportedly wants convention overruled and for the plane’s black box to be sent to Germany, rather than France, for analysis, as suspicions concentrate on the behavior of French SFOR ground controllers who were in charge in Mostar on Thursday morning.

The swirl of conflicting reports regarding the plane crash that killed Trajkovski picked up force on Saturday. This tantalizing uncertainty has exacerbated Macedonian confusion and anger over the tragedy, as attempts to locate the true cause of the accident remain inconclusive. New reports, such as the revelation that the plane was barely 2 minutes from its destination at the time of the crash, have only increased the people’s misery.

Now, all of the possibilities- foul play, technical malfunction, pilot error or air-traffic controller error- have been put on the table, as photos of the plane’s wreckage start to be made public.

The first is most unlikely. No one had such a motivation against the president, a quite affable man who kept polemics to a minimum. Besides, since he was not expected to win the 2004 elections, or even run, it would seem unlikely that any potential rival could have had such a malevolent motivation.

Indeed, on Saturday afternoon hostile fire was ruled out: “…the possibility that the plane was shot down is absolutely excluded,” Macedonian deputy public prosecutor Roksanda Krstevska said in Mostar.

The second possibility had appeared immediately on Thursday, when it was revealed that the plane in question was a battered, 26 year-old aircraft that had almost killed former foreign minister Slobodan Casule. Complaining that the plane should have been grounded long ago, Casule said that the windshield had once blown out during one of his trips over Romania.

The depths of the technical failure thesis became even murkier when Forum Magazine’s Saso Ordanovski mysteriously stated that there had been an explosion on the plane moments before it crashed. No explanation was provided for this statement, which was made for Bulgarian radio and re-routed through China’s Xinhua news agency and the Bulgarian Novinite.com.

Finally, there are the related issues of human error- on the part of the pilots, the ground controllers, or both. Bosnian newspaper ‘Dnevni Avaz’ on Saturday blamed the pilot for the crash, citing ‘bad weather conditions’ as well. However, another Bosnian source, Pincom.info, blamed the SFOR French ground controllers for the crash. Some Macedonian media have also insinuated the latter charge.

This is the most contentious possibility of all, because if the SFOR ground controllers are found to have been at fault, it could cause a serious international scandal. This would be extraordinarily bad timing for Bosnia’s Western overseers, who are in any case starting to wear out their welcome here as in other parts of the former Yugoslavia.

Why, then, is so much disillusionment and disagreement emerging so fast? First of all, Macedonians are understandably upset over the loss of their most visible public figure, one whose popularity was never immense but who notably appealed to individuals of all ethnicities.

Macedonian misgivings have also arisen out of a popular perception that the accident was handled incorrectly by various actors at certain times. So far, it seems that the Macedonian civil aviation authorities have been cleared of any oversights. Logs of maintenance works performed before the plane left have shown that all proper procedures were followed. The hangar in which the plane had been kept has also been sealed off as the investigation continues.

However, SFOR in Bosnia, which controls the Mostar airspace, has been criticized for preventing anyone from entering the area for several hours. Macedonian media today reported the testimony of an unnamed source in the Bosnian Interior Ministry, who asked why SFOR, “…being a direct controller of the flight during [the] whole day and night, didn’t announce the exact location of the plane crash and why [did] the search for the missing plane [take] 24 hours, if they saw on the navigation system where the plane had crashed?”

When a Bosnian Army team was finally allowed to enter the area on Friday, it claimed that the plane had actually been easy to find. The wreckage was first discovered at 8:30 Friday morning- exactly 24 hours after the crash. Soon thereafter, Bosnian civil aviation officials announced that the plane’s remains were dispersed within a radius of 50 meters near the village of Huskovici, in the area of Rotimlja, 20 km south of Mostar.

In this context, Mladen Ivanovikj, Foreign Minister of Bosnia and Herzegovina announced Friday that SFOR “…will be requested to submit more detailed information on the reason why NATO search lasted so long and wasn’t successful.”

An explanation does indeed need to be made for this time discrepancy. On Thursday, at approximately 08:20 AM, SFOR’s Control Tower at Mostar Airfield lost contact with the President’s aircraft. Some 9 hours later, Bosnian media reported that

“…despite reports to the contrary, SFOR can confirm that the aircraft has not yet been located. FMUP, RSMUP, SFOR and other agencies have troops on the ground actively searching for the crash site and when the weather allows, helicopters from AFBiH and SFOR are conducting an aerial search.

The area of Stolac and Berkovici is mountainous, is still heavily mined and has few roads. These factors coupled with the bad weather and the size of the search area are making the operation incredibly difficult.

SFOR is working with the BiH authorities and the international community to co-ordinate a thorough search. As the light fades and the bad weather continues it is likely that a full aerial search cannot be undertaken until tomorrow. Nevertheless ground troops are continuing the search as long as conditions permit.”

Considering the testimony of the Bosnian Army teams who said the plane was quite easy to find, one can understand why Macedonians are starting to believe that there might be something wrong with this picture. True, this is the Balkans, where all kinds of theories are held dear and debated. It’s a land of conspiracy and fog.

Nevertheless, Thursday was a pretty foggy morning in Mostar, and the possibility that French SFOR air traffic controllers are trying to cover up their own failure here has to be entertained, at least hypothetically. This prospect was implied by the anonymous source from Bosnia’s interior ministry, quoted by a Macedonian journalist:

“…At the moment when the plane hit the hill, it was even 650 meters lower than minimally allowed flight height. Also, during the fall, the plane of the Macedonian Government was only 15 air kilometers away from the airport in Mostar. That radius vector is under direct control of SFOR navigation team.”

If it turns out that there is something to this, one would seem justified in asking whether SFOR is spending too much time and resources searching for Radovan Karadzic, and not enough time on performing basic tasks, like civil aviation security.

Bosnia’s public prosecutor announced that the tape of ground control’s last recorded conversation with the plane’s pilots, just a few minutes before the crash, was being examined Friday. Macedonian officials affirmed on Saturday that they would listen to the tape, but nothing was said about what the Bosnian authorities had learned from it.

As usual, the plane’s black box is expected to be the key piece of evidence for reconstructing the accident. This evidence will be incredibly important, especially since the level of controversy is high. The plane’s 2 black boxes were discovered on Friday, and Macedonian authorities said they would be taken to Skopje for examination.

Because of the importance of the black box, and the fears that the French may have something to hide, Macedonian television consequently reported today that the government is seeking to have the full examination done in Germany. Although Paris is the internationally-agreed center for such research, this might be the best decision. Excluding the French from any further involvement will be in their own best interests, so that conspiracy theorists will be deprived of any possibility for spreading future rumors.

One other idea, to send the black box to America, was dropped in consideration of the fact that the crashed plane was American-made. In any case, however, America is involved. An expert team from the FAA will assist with the investigation going on in Bosnia.

It is expected that the bodies of the crash victims will be returned to Macedonia late on Sunday, and that the president’s state funeral will take place on Tuesday or Wednesday. Crvenkovski’s trip is meant to hasten the procedure, which the Bosnian authorities said has been slowed due to trouble with identifying some of the bodies:

“…According to the data of the expert team who works on autopsy on the bodies of Macedonian delegation, there are sufficient indicators for four bodies under which identification could be made, while identification of the remaining five bodies will take time, because technical identification, namely DNA, is likely to be made, declared for FENA the spokesman of the Federal MoI, Nedћad Vejzagić.”

While the mystery may not be solved immediately, after the funeral grief will give way to anger. And the Macedonians will need some answers about how their highest leader and representative abroad was so needlessly killed in the misty, dark hills of Bosnia. Will this, the latest Balkan tragedy, have a clear-cut answer? Or will its explanation be forever shrouded in the fog of uncertainty, as so often has happened in this region obscured by shadow, rumor and myth?

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