‘Mechanical error crashed Zia ul-Haq’s plane’

August 16th, 2008 - 8:20 pm ICT by IANS  

A file-photo of Benazir Bhutto

London, Aug 16 (IANS) The air crash that killed former Pakistan president Muhammad Zia ul-Haq 20 years ago Sunday was caused by a common mechanical problem rather than a plot hatched by foreign powers or rival generals, a British newspaper quoted a former US ambassador to Pakistan as saying. “There were a lot of conspiracy theories and there still are, understandably in that part of the world,” Robert Oakley, who took over as US ambassador after the crash and helped to handle the politically fraught investigation, told The Times in an investigation published Saturday.

“I said [to the Pakistanis]: ‘You are all going to think this is sabotage but I do not have evidence of that… We think it’s mechanical failure. We have looked at the records of the US Air Force. We have found a number of failures - maybe 20 or 30 - where C130s behaved this way,” Oakley added.

Gen Zia’s plane crashed minutes after taking off from the southern Punjab city of Bahawalpur Aug 17, 1988.

The Pakistani dictator, US ambassador Arnold Raphel, his military attaché Brig-Gen Herbert Wassom and a number of top Pakistani generals were among 29 people killed.

The crash has been the subject of many conspiracy theories that have sought to blame the Americans, Russians, Indians, Israelis and rival Pakistani generals.

As recently as in October 2007, former Pakistan prime minister Benazir Bhutto made a reference to it just before returning to Pakistan in a bid to oust President Pervez Musharraf, saying, “We can’t wait for a plane to drop out of the sky.”

The Times said the widows of both ambassador Raphel and Brig-Gen. Wassom had both been told that a mechanical error caused the crash.

Nancy Ely-Raphel, herself a senior US diplomat, told the newspaper, “Initially I thought maybe it was Benazir’s brother, but no one has ever taken credit for it and those things are not the kind of things you do by yourself. Pakistan is not the kind of place where those things do not come out.

“It seems there was a mechanical failure for a C-130 in Colorado and the same thing happened. A C-130 had gone into gyrations in the air over Colorado. It was not as close to the ground. They pulled it out,” Ely-Raphel said.

“It was the steering mechanism, is the way he described it to me. It did not crash but it went through these gyrations up in the air and the pilot pulled it out. I had always thought C130s were the workhorses of the air. I was quite surprised when the Air Force described to me what they had discovered,” she said.

Oakley told the paper the fault lay with the hydraulics in the tail assembly - a problem that Pakistani pilots were unable to deal with.

“These pilots did not have much experience flying C130s and they flew so low,” he said.

However, a separate Pakistani investigation blamed the crash on sabotage.

It found no conclusive evidence of an explosion, but said chemicals that could be used in small explosives were detected in mango seeds and a piece of rope found on the aircraft.

“The use of a chemical agent to incapacitate the pilots and thus perpetuate the accident therefore remains a distinct possibility,” the Pakistani report said.

The theory has recently been enshrined in a work of fiction - former Pakistan Air Force officer Mohammed Hanif’s acclaimed novel “A Case of Exploding Mangoes”.

But Ely-Raphel called the theory preposterous, saying, “There was nothing pointing to any kind of gas whatever in any of the reports I read.”

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