Tuesday, July 18 7:39 AM SGT 

Group sues US government to release TWA flight 800 probe documents

WASHINGTON, July 17 (AFP) - 

An independent group that claims a missile downed TWA Flight 800 in 1996 on Monday filed a lawsuit against two US government agencies to force the release of documents it says they withheld from the official investigation.

The group Flight 800 Independent Researchers Organization (FIRO) said the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) kept back crucial information, notably on autopsy results that might have shown missile debris in victims' bodies.

"They broke the law. They refused to release information," said FIRO chairman Tom Stalcup Monday, at the end of a news conference here, which coincided with the fourth anniversary of the air disaster.

The TWA Boeing 747 plunged into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Long Island, 12 minutes after take-off from New York's John F. Kennedy Airport on July 17, 1996.

All 230 people aboard the Paris-bound flight died.

Marking the fourth anniversary of the tragedy at a religious ceremony close to the Atlantic crash site, families of victims gathered Monday at the place where a 1.5-million-dollar memorial is to be built.

"Four years later, the pain is strong," John Seaman, who lost a niece in the disaster told a local television station.

A day earlier, friends and family of the victims, brought shovels to the beach to install the cornerstone of the monument at the memorial site where currently 14 flags fly above the beach, marking the 14 nationalities of the victims.

The 230 victims' names are to be inscribed on a black granite wall at the monument. The wall will also include the names of the 3,000 people who participated on search teams.

The crash has been the subject of the biggest investigation in US aviation history, and the NTSB is expected to release its findings on August 22-23.

The NTSB maintains that the crash was caused by an explosion of the aircraft's central tank, saying that it was almost empty and probably exploded when kerosene fumes ignited through as-yet undefined causes.

Retired US Navy commander William Donaldson, chief investigator with the Association of Retired Aviation Professionals said the TWA flight's tank had to be full, however, since the plane had just taken off.

"The tank must have been hit by something," he told reporters Monday.

The group has already interviewed 755 witnesses, of whom 260 said they saw a glowing light in the sky at the time of the TWA explosion, while 94 of the witnesses said the object came up from the ground.

FIRO says the arc of light, seen seconds before the aircraft exploded, could have been caused by a rocket or a missile, and points, specifically, to a Stinger surface-to-air missile as the cause of the crash.

The group filed suit Monday in a Springfield, Massachusetts district court.

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