US: Toronto airport land-mines scare was caused by El Al

The airline refused public comment, but did contest who may have been responsible for the incident.

By STEWART STOGEL
October 12, 2010 04:27
SECURITY PERSONNEL in Toronto’s airport discovered

EL AL Plane 58. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

NEW YORK – Last month’s land-mines scare at Toronto’s Lester Pearson International Airport was the result of a breakdown inside El Al Israel Airlines, say US Defense Department officials and sources inside the international freight carrier DHL.

“They [the land mines] should not have been booked onboard a passenger aircraft... It was a mistake by the carrier [El Al],” explained a Pentagon official, after a brief internal investigation.

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The breakdown was eventually caught by airline security, but set off major alarms at the busy Canadian airport in the process.

It all centered around the transport of training equipment for the US Army in Sinai that El Al did not properly process.

The airline refused public comment, but did contest who may have been responsible for the incident.

Commercial passenger aircraft are prohibited by international law from carrying arms, say officials at the United Nations.

On Monday, September 27, a crate destined for an El Al passenger plane bound for Ben- Gurion Airport set off screening alarms inside the Vista Cargo warehouse at Pearson Airport outside Toronto.

El Al security personnel were surprised to discovered what appeared to be a cache of live land mines.

According to the Peel (Ontario) Regional Police, the incident resulted in a brief evacuation of the cargo facility and a subsequent lockdown.

Constable George Tudos explained: “When the mines were discovered, an evacuation of the [cargo] facility was ordered...

About 100 people may have been involved... It lasted about four hours.”

It also brought the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and an explosives technical crew from the Canadian Army to the Vista Cargo location.

An investigation conducted by Canadian police revealed that the military consignment containing the mines was destined for US Army troops serving in the Multinational Force in Sinai, not for UN personnel, as was originally reported by various media at the time.

Also, the mines were not “armed” as originally reported.

According to Pentagon spokeswoman Lt.-Col Rene White, the shipment originated from the US Department of Defense for use by American military personnel in Israel.

The “training” land mines, which contain an inert gas rather than explosives, were part of a larger shipment sent from a US Army facility in Portsmouth, Virginia.

On Friday, the Pentagon confirmed that a cache of “inert mortars” was also packed with the land mines.

According to White, the shipment was turned over to a commercial carrier for transport to Tel Aviv and onto Sinai.

The commercial carrier was discovered to be the German company DHL. DHL in turn hired El Al for the actual transport to Israel.

Bea Garcia, a spokeswoman for the freight carrier, confirmed the booking and that the facility on the manifest, “HMTO-Virginia,” was in fact a US Army base in Portsmouth.

Garcia explained that the Pentagon does “occasionally” use commercial freight carriers to transport military equipment.

“We are able to transport military cargo,” she said.

Garcia insisted that all required papers were correctly filled out by DHL.

She also revealed that a brief investigation of the incident was conducted by the company’s headquarters in Bonn, Germany.

“We always comply with effective regulatory framework, international law and UN conventions.

The shipment was clearly listed as cargo shipment (not to be placed on a passenger plane). For any further information, please contact El Al.”

DHL explained that it flew the cargo from Washington Dulles International Airport to New York’s Kennedy Airport early in the week of September 27.

At JFK, DHL turned over the shipment to El Al.

Sources inside DHL, speaking on background, insisted that El Al at JFK was clearly told the cargo was not to be placed on a passenger airliner.

That restriction, said DHL, is in conformity with numerous international statutes regulating the transport of military equipment on commercial aircraft.

“It was given to El Al; they took control of it,” insisted a DHL executive.

El Al at the airport expressed no concerns or reservations in accepting the DHL/US Army consignment.

It appears that no security inspection was performed by the airline at JFK.

For reasons not clear, El Al decided to transport the cargo overland to Toronto, and then on to Israel on one of its planes.

DHL confirms that the consignment transited Canadian and US Customs at the border without any incident.

Tudos explained that if all the proper papers were presented at the frontier, the customs personnel likely waved the El Al cargo through without any examination.

“If it came from the US military and was destined for US troops nobody would likely stop it,” he said.

The shipment reached Toronto, and when it was being processed for the jet bound for Israel, the land mines were reportedly “discovered.”

The cargo, said Tudos, was “initially inspected” by El Al security personnel inside the Vista warehouse, and when alarms sounded, officials from Transport Canada intervened.

Transport Canada officials were soon joined by representatives of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Canadian Army and the Peel (Ontario) Regional Police.

Eventually, an all-clear was given after the Canadian authorities contacted US Army officials in Virginia and re-screened the crate.

The Pentagon’s White explained: “The Defense Department provides realistic-looking examples of explosive devices as training aids for use primarily by explosive ordnance disposal technicians. In this incident, a commercial contract carrier mistakenly attempted to use a passenger airliner for transportation instead of a cargo aircraft... We regret any alarm that may have occurred.”

El Al officials in Toronto refused to re-take possession of the training arms shipment, despite the all-clear from airport authorities.

Since the consignment was now blocked by El Al, it was turned over to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Peel Regional Police for further investigation.

The mines were later returned to the US Army, which in turn shipped them via a US military aircraft to the troops in Sinai, White said.

Canadian government officials had no additional comment on the incident other than to say the crate in question had no markings indicating its contents.

El Al offered no official explanation.

The Pentagon insisted that El Al at JFK did direct the mines to be sent on a passenger aircraft, a violation of numerous air transportation statutes. Such a violation could have resulted in sanctions by US and Canadian authorities, say UN officials.

Said White in a second statement late on Friday: “The contract carrier [El Al] shipped the box to Toronto with the intent of placing it on a passenger aircraft.”


El Al has yet to explain how it initially accepted the controversial cargo at JFK, and failed to screen it before transporting it across the Canadian border and though two Customs checkpoints to Toronto, only to eventually block the shipment at the Canadian airport, where it was destined for a passenger aircraft rather than a cargo plane.

“It [the shipment] did not make it onboard the aircraft; that is all that matters. This is not a story,” insisted the El Al source, who refused to be publicly identified.

“All further inquiries should be addressed to the Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv,” the source added.


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