ATHENS, Greece--The prime suspect in the TWA bombing spent six hours in the Athens transit lounge and left on a flight to Beirut minutes before the crippled American jet made an emergency landing nearby, police said yesterday.
Italian police have said the woman, traveling under the name May Elias Mansur, is a known terrorist, but a senior Greek security officer said, "We were never alerted that she was a suspected terrorist."
"According to our records she hadn't been in Greece before. We're trying to trace passengers who might have noticed her on the Athensbound flight" of the same TWA jet Wednesday from Cairo, Nikos Kokkinakis told reporters.
The Boeing 727 flew from Cairo to Athens, then to Rome and back to Athens. The bomb exploded as the jet approached the Greek capital on the return trip--under seat 10F, the one Mansur is said to have occupied.
Four Americans were blown out of the plane to their deaths through a 9-by-3-foot hole made by the explosion.
Kokkinakis said Mansur left the TWA plane at Athens, entered the transit lounge immediately and boarded a Middle East Airlines flight six hours later that took off for Beirut minutes before Capt. Richard F. Petersen landed the bombed plane.
Officials of Middle East Airlines, the Lebanese national carrier, in Beirut would not confirm that Mansur was aboard Flight 254 from Athens on Wednesday.
A statement denying involvement in the bombing, purportedly signed by the terrorist, was distributed yesterday to reporters in the north Lebanon city of Tripoli.
It said Mansur "had nothing to do with" planting the bomb and would sue everyone "who falsely accused" her of it. Police said there was no way to determine whether the statement was authentic.
A Christian Beirut radio station, the Voice of Lebanon, said Mansur had returned to Lebanon and was a member of the Revolutionary Brigades terrorist group.
The radio quoted unidentified sources as saying she is a Lebanese Christian, the widow of a Druse militiaman known as Abu Nisrin who was killed last year in Lebanon's civil war. It said Mansur was her maiden name.
According to the radio, she divides most of her time between Moslem west Beirut and the village of Qbayat in the Syrian-controlled Bekaa Valley of eastern Lebanon.
Little is known of the Revolutionary Brigades, but the radio said its main training camp is at Qbayat.
A group calling itself the Arab Revolutionary Cells claimed responsibility for planting the bomb. Palestinian sources familiar with terrorist operations said Thursday that was a new name used by Abu Nidal, the terrorist leader widely blamed for the December 27 airport massacres at Rome and Vienna.
Various police reports say the woman is about 30 years old, with a slight limp.
Steve Heckscher, TWA spokesman in Athens, said: "She is the prime suspect. That's the leading supposition."
He said the woman underwent a body search at the Cairo airport by an Egyptian policewoman "as part of routine security measures" and her luggage was searched by Egyptian and TWA security.
The terrorist-passenger checked in late at Cairo and was driven to the Boeing 727 by a TWA official in a company car, according to Egyptian security officials. One official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the passenger list was checked after the bombing and no suspicions were raised about any passenger.
Sally McElwreath, a TWA spokeswoman in New York, said a review found no breaches of security procedures at the Cairo, Rome and Athens airports.
She said Mansur was "subjected to the most rigorous of checks" and was driven to the plane because the shuttle bus assigned to the flight aready had left for the aircraft.
Body searches of passengers are not uncommon in Cairo, particularly of Lebanese and Palestinians.