Edging to a diplomatic row over crash investigation     
(Saturday, 27 February 2010 The Reporter)
Image“If someone uses [their] political power to alter the theme of the report then we will discuss this” :Girma Wake

When a reporter from this paper asked a foreign ministry official last week, what the government had to say regarding Lebanese statements on the crashed Ethiopian Airlines Boeing jet, they calmly declined to comment on the issue and said: “There is an agreement on how the issue is to be dealt with by both countries.”

Whether that calm still prevails is questionable, in that Wednesday’s press briefing by Ethiopian Airlines CEO, Girma Wake, is indicative of the frustration that local officials here are feeling about how the Lebanese are handling the case.

“It is not in line with what our two countries have signed for,” Girma said. “Are we out for a big war?  I hope the investigators will put some sense into the investigation and come out with a proper working system, thereby avoiding a war between nations, between authorities. I’m hoping that may not be necessary, but we are not ready to accept a conclusion made without a proper analysis.”

He said the French investigators had refused to disclose to him what the contents of the recorder revealed about the final moments of the flight.

“I read the news ten times. I asked the investigators. They did not want to tell me the whole thing, but they assured me that there were no such statements,” Girma told journalists.

Notwithstanding a high level agreement otherwise between Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin and the Lebanese, the latter are consistently issuing highly sensitive statements and allegedly leaking information to the media, the latest being that the pilot had spoken in Amharic and said that they were doomed and had asked for God’s mercy.

The fact that the last statement came before the French investigators handed their reports to the two countries also makes the whole exercise preposterous.

After 30 days of investigation the preliminary report of the investigation was handed over to the Ethiopian Civil Aviation Authority and Ethiopian Airlines on Monday.

Immediately after flight ET- 409 crashed on the early morn of January 25th, the Lebanese authorities had begun to issue statements that “prematurely” attributed the cause of the accident first to the weather, then to pilot error, and had also categorically ruled out that sabotage was involved.

Such statements had prompted Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin to fly over to Beirut and meet with the Lebanese officials, after which a joint press statement was issued indicating that an agreement had been reached between the two countries to refrain from making presumptuous statements until the investigations were complete.

Girma also hinted that the Lebanese were somehow obstructing the investigation and sidelining the Ethiopian delegates from the process.

Girma described the situation as such that when the Lebanese authorities needed information from the Ethiopian side they demanded it so fast. On the other hand, when the Ethiopian side requested information from the Lebanese side they would not provide it on time.

“There is information that we asked for on January 25 and they have not provided it to us to date. That is why our suspicion is growing,” Girma said at his office.
Responding to questions regarding the controversial issue of the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) he said, “We were told that they could not find the CVR. We said you should find it where you found the Flight Data Recorder (FDR). Then they said they have found the CVR. We went to see the CVR. It was sealed. We wanted to see it in Beirut but they said they cannot unseal it. We sent a senior captain to France to listen to the recording. Then they said they have only found the box and the memory chip was missing. After three or four days they informed us that they have found it. Again we sent the same person to France.”

Girma said that some parts of the memory chip had sustained external damage but that it was more or less intact.

While Ethiopian Airlines, according to Girma, had no complaints on the investigators or on the investigation process, it is, however, unhappy about the way the Lebanese authorities were handling the case.

Girma was careful but also touched on suspicions that sabotage could also have been a likely cause for the accident that claimed the lives of 31 Ethiopians, 54 Lebanese and five others from different countries.

“A lot of war has been going on in Lebanon, the whole area has been full of political turmoil,” he said. “Divisions within countries in the region. Because of that people can take their own wild guesses. The very fact it happened at Beirut airport at time when it is politically sensitive, does gives people to put their own thinking into it,” he said.

“The first day of the accident the transport minister came out and said sabotage was ruled out. Why do you say that unless you are afraid of something? We said that we do not rule out any probable cause, including sabotage,” Girma said, “The word sabotage first came out from them,” he said.  “They were told by Ethiopian authorities to stop feeding the media unfounded information. They said okay it was wrong. But they are still doing it.”

Girma argued that the investigation process had begun but is not yet finished. He said the report showed the types of data collected from the wreckage, the FDR, CVR and the remains of the victims. However, witnesses have yet to be heard, he said.

“All these data should be put together and analyzed. No analysis has been made. So no one could make a conclusive statement based on the preliminary report. If someone uses [their] political power to alter the theme of the report then we will discuss this.”

Ethiopian Airlines is still flying to Beirut and Girma said that they would have suspended flights if the cause of the accident was conclusively found to be sabotage. He said that Ethiopian was still flying to Beirut because it did not establish the cause as sabotage or a case related to security. (By Kaleyesus Bekele and Namrud Berhane)

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