Explosives fiasco blamed on police dog-handler

Slovak interior minister Robert Kalinak at a press conference in Bratislava yesterday. Mr Kalinak said opposition criticism of him was part of a pre-election campaign. Photograph: Marian Peiger/AP

Slovak interior minister Robert Kalinak at a press conference in Bratislava yesterday. Mr Kalinak said opposition criticism of him was part of a pre-election campaign. Photograph: Marian Peiger/AP

 

SLOVAK INTERIOR minister Robert Kalinak has refused to resign over the botched airport security test that saw a passenger unwittingly carry explosives on a flight from Slovakia to Dublin, despite fierce criticism of his government’s handling of the case.

The minister accepted the resignation of Slovak border guard chief Tibor Mako, a day after Mr Kalinak’s spokesman insisted that the fiasco was the sole fault of a police dog-handler who forgot to remove one of two samples of explosives placed in a man’s luggage as a test for sniffer dogs.

The man, Slovak electrician Stefan Gonda (49), was briefly arrested on Tuesday after gardaí found the explosives at his Dorset Street flat in Dublin following a belated tip-off from Slovak police. After spending Christmas at home, he had returned to Dublin on a Danube Wings flight from the central Slovakian airport of Poprad-Tatry on Saturday.

Opposition parties in Slovakia hurled a volley of criticism at the government yesterday, as confusion continued to surround the circumstances of the debacle and how the country’s leaders and police have responded to it.

One of the key questions surrounds how and why the pilot of the Dublin-bound flight was allowed to take off with some 96g of high-grade plastic explosives on board. The Slovak interior ministry insists the explosives were not a safety risk because they were in a stable condition and not linked to a detonator. It also claimed that before take-off “the pilot of the plane was contacted via airport tower . . . The pilot evaluated the situation as not dangerous and he took off with the plane.”

However, both Danube Wings and Czech Airlines – from whom Danube Wings leased the Boeing 737-400 and crew – insist the pilot was not told he had explosives on his aircraft.

“According to the current findings, the crew was only informed by the control tower while taxiing before take-off that a harmless box had been left after the exercise in one of the checked bags in the hold, which did not compromise the safety of the flight and contained a scent track for dog training,” said Czech Airlines spokeswoman Hana Hejskova.

Even after accepting Mr Mako’s resignation, Mr Kalinak continued to insist yesterday that blame lay squarely with the dog-handler, whom Mr Mako said failed to tell his police superiors about the missing explosives until Monday.

“What happened at Poprad airport was a stupid human error. It was clearly the failure of a particular policeman. Disciplinary procedures have been initiated against him,” he told a press conference.

“As a minister I have done everything required in this case. I have ordered a review of our procedures and halted such . . . Regarding calls for my resignation, I see them as part of the pre-election fight. It was not a systemic error.”

Slovakia is gearing up for a general election in June, but opposition politicians said their criticism of the government, and of Mr Kalinak in particular, was not mere politicking.

“In my opinion the reaction of the Slovak government to this incident has been highly inadequate,” said Martin Fedor, a leading member of Slovakia’s main opposition party.

“This incident indicates a presence of a systemic failure and probably also a violation of the Slovak law,” the former defence minister told The Irish Times.

Populist prime minister Robert Fico broke his silence on the case to defend Mr Kalinak.

There has been no word from electrician Stefan Gonda on the case that has propelled him into the public eye. But his wife Monika told a Slovak newspaper yesterday that he was still “quite traumatised” by the affair.

She said he had no intention of suing the Slovak police or the Garda over his ordeal, however, and he bore no grudge towards the dog-handler who left explosives in his backpack.

“We don’t want the policeman to suffer,” she said. “Anyone can make a mistake, and he certainly didn’t do it maliciously.”