On January 25th, an EAL Boeing 737  with 90 people aboard went down on a stormy night about four minutes after taking off from Beirut Airport.  There were no survivors.

From the beginning, the Lebanese government has insisted that the cause of the crash was human error on the Ethiopian side.  In other words, the tower at Beirut Airport bears no responsibility, Beirut airport security is not negligent, Lebanon is not a haven for international terrorists who might be suspected, etc.  Maybe it was human error and Lebanon is in no way responsible.  The fact is that no one knows enough about the accident yet to support any conclusion at all.

Over the past month, various Lebanese officials have continued to claim that the crash was the result of human error. They offered no evidence.  At the same time they say people shouldn’t jump to conclusions.

Girma Awake, the boss at EAL, has said only that all possibilities remain open until there is evidence.  He says it again every time there is another statement from Lebanon.

The black boxes were found, but the physical trail of the cockpit voice recorder from the time the signal of its location underwater was picked up to the current analysis of both boxes in France is raising doubts.  The voice recorder was said not to have been located when the data recorder was found, then this story was changed to mean that the chip containing the actual recorded voices was missing from the voice data box and then it was found.  Found detached and on the sea floor? Now a story apparently leaked by the Ethiopian government through the Reporter, a weekly newspaper with both English and Amharic editions, suggests that the device has been tampered with, adding to suspicion that Lebanon is obstructing an open and impartial  investigation.

From the beginning, the Lebanese government has been acting like it has something serious to hide.  A high level Ethiopian delegation, including several veteran pilots, says that it was given limited access to partial information and no chance to verify anything on the ground in Lebanon.  How could this not give rise to suspicions?

Ethiopia could be exaggerating its suspicions, or worse.  Lebanon could put all suspicions to rest by ending  its secrecy and inviting Ethiopian, Boeing and others  to share the information it has.  Until then, Lebanon is fueling the potential for an ugly international incident.  Under the circumstances, it’s natural to conclude that Lebanon believes it would be damaging to share the information it has and would rather provoke condemnation for being obstructive.

A few weeks ago Ethiopia asked for ‘international help’ with the investigation. This request for help is an indirect way of expressing its increasingly stronger suspicion of  Lebanon’s secrecy.

Last week, Ethiopia sued Boeing, the maker of  the 737.  This was probably a routine legal step, just covering the right for a future claim if needed.  But the suit reminds us that Boeing wants an honest investigation so that aircraft failure doesn’t become a compromise villain that gets both Ethiopia and Lebanon off, if they should want that.   Boeing has been involved in the accident investigation from the beginning as it usually is when one of its planes is involved, It has a lot more clout among governments, and obviously in Washington, than does Ethiopia.

The information from the black boxes will be available soon, but will be tainted by suspected Lebanese tampering.  There are now unofficial but public Ethiopian suspicions that would be unsafe to publish without government approval.  They are provoked by Lebanese refusal to cooperate.  Is Lebanon trying to manipulate the investigation?  Are there several minutes missing from both the cockpit voice recorder and the recording of the tower’s exchanges with the cockpit after takeoff, as is alleged in the Ethiopian press?

Ethiopia’s insinuation is, of course, that the crash was caused by unknown ‘foul play’, that Lebanon suspects this also and is doing its best to suppress evidence of this.  Early news reports mentioned ‘witnesses’ who saw the plane in flames before it hit the water.  The tower says that the pilot disregarded its instructions and turned in the opposite direction.  Did that happen?  Does the tape include an explanation from the plane, if it happened?  Was there a bomb in the luggage?  Did a terrorist manage to get onto the plane and even into the cockpit?

The world press has given little coverage to this story after the initial days, over a month ago.  The Ethiopian press has said little until now, repeating the insistence that all possible explanations must remain on the table until they are eliminated by evidence.

Most of the information presented above comes from the Lebanese press, which has given the story extensive coverage. Local interest is great because there were many Lebanese victims.  Others, including the BBC, Agence France Press, Reuters and the New York Times, cite this same Lebanese source, The Daily Star.

A good record of the press coverage since January 25 can be found at East Africa Forum.  Most items can be found through the keyword ‘crash’ in the search engine.

Here’s a direct link to yesterday’s Reporter story.

Ethiopia lost an airliner in a terrorist hijacking in 1996.  The plane ran out of fuel, made a forced landing in the ocean near the Comoros Islands, and 52 of the 175 on board survived.  The hijackers were Somalis.  Ethiopia-Somali relations are just as bitter today as they were then.  But if it was a terrorist act, the Somalis aren’t the only enemies Ethiopia has.

This clash between Ethiopia and Lebanon shows every sign of growing nastier.  The only way to prevent this is for Lebanon to share fully what it has learned so far and to let Ethiopia confirm the information to the best of its ability.  If Lebanon has nothing to hide, this is the obvious approach.  If it has something to hide, its current approach makes troubling sense.

With every passing day, it seems more likely that Lebanon is engaging in a cover-up to prevent the truth from being known.