Global Policy Forum

Libya Rebuffs U.N. Chief on Bomb Trial


By Barbara Crossette

New York Times
December 6, 1998

The United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan, gambled on an unusual trip to Libya yesterday but apparently failed to persuade Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi to turn over two suspects wanted in the bombing of a Pan Am jet over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988.

After keeping Mr. Annan waiting nearly all day at the Libyan coastal town of Sirte, Colonel Qaddafi met for an hour and a half at an undisclosed location with the Secretary General, who said afterward that the talks were "fruitful and positive." Mr. Annan's aides said he left Libya in good spirits but indicated that obstacles remained in the path to a trial in the Netherlands.

"Libya has confirmed its seriousness and readiness to find a solution to the Lockerbie problem," Mr. Annan said at a news conference in Tripoli, the Libyan capital. "Libya has also agreed to a trial in a third country and believes that it ought to be possible to find answers to all other outstanding issues related to this matter." But a trial in a third country, specifically the Netherlands, was not the main issue Mr. Annan went to Libya to discuss. That compromise was agreed to with the United States and Britain in August after the Libyans - balked at a trial in either country.

The problems that have arisen since come from Libyan demands that the two suspects, if convicted, not be imprisoned in Scotland. Libya also wants more assurances that United Nations sanctions, imposed for its failure to hand over the two suspects, will indeed be lifted when it turns the men over.

Mr. Annan, whom aides describe as a born conciliator, flew to Sirte at some political risk, saying he wanted to try to break the decade-long deadlock in the case by getting Colonel Qaddafi's agreement to stop delaying the transfer of the two suspects to the Netherlands for a trial by Scottish judges.

When Mr. Annan arrived at Sirte, he was left talking with Libya's Foreign Minister, Omar al-Montasser, and Libya's representative to the United Nations, Abu Zeid Omar Dorda, as well as the visiting eresldent of Burkina Faso, Blaise Cornpaore.

Mr. Annan detoured from a trip between Tunisia and a meeting of Persian Gulf leaders in Abu Dhabi to go to Libya, despite the skepticism of diplomats and United Nations officials, and he could have met either lower-level Libyan official at his office in New York. His trip to Libya was premised on talks with Colonel Qaddafi, although there was no assurance in advance that the Libyan leader would show up.

This is the third time in his first two years as Secretary General that Mr. Annan has taken political risks to try to reach a compromise with a dictatorial leader.

He agreed two years ago to reconstitute an investigation team looking into allegations of massacres in Congo when the new President, Laurent Kabila, whose troops were accused of the killings, refused to work with the group set up by the United Nations Human Rights Commission.

In February of this year, he went to Baghdad to persuade President Saddam Hussein to resume cooperation with arms inspectors. In both cases his agreements were not honored.

There were no details immediately available on his talks with Colonel Qaddafi, whom he met in a lavish desert tent, which a television crew was permitted to film. Expectations for the meeting were never very high, but the United Nations had a plane on standby in Italy in case the two suspects were released.

It is still possible that this could happen, since Libya's Parliament has been summoned into a rare session on Tuesday. Pan Am Flight 103 was blown up over the town of Lockerbie on Dec. 21, 1988, killing 270 people, including 11 on the ground. An investigation by British and American law enforcement and intelligence agencies concluded that two Libyan agents had planted an explosive disguised as a radio-cassette player planted on the plane.

The Libyans are also accused of plotting the explosion that destroyed a French jet liner over Niger in 1989, killing 171 people. That case is also unresolved.

Colonel Qaddafi is eager to see the end of sanctions, imposed on Libya in 1992 and toughened in 1993. These sanctions have barred international air travel to and from Libya as well as the sale of arms and spare parts for aviation and for the oil industry on which the Libyan economy depends. Libyan assets have been frozen abroad and diplomatic representation has been limited.

Mr. Annan had to apply to the Security Council's Libyan sanctions committee on Thursday for permission to fly to Libya from the Tunisian resort island of Djerba.

In Washington, a spokesman for the National Security Council, David C. Leavy, said last night: "We are disappointed that Libya is still not in compliance. ... this has been going on for far too long." An American diplomat who has been working on the Libya issue in the Security Council said on Thursday that the Clinton Administration had viewed Mr. Annan's trip as a way to "advance the handover of the suspects," and nothing more.

"We would expect his travel to Libya to achieve that end," said Nancy Soderberg, the acting deputy representative at the United Nations. Several diplomats said that Mr. Annnn had gone to Libya with no room for negotiation.

"The United States and Britain have gone the extra mile," Ms. Soderberg said. Before Mr, Annan's trip, which he planned in close consultation with British and American officials, Libya had been sending mixed signals about its intentions, as Colonel Qaddafi tried to set conditions on the release of suspects to protect his intelligence network and his political Position, Arab diplomats said. One of the suspects belongs to a clan in Libya that is, at best, lukewarm in its support of the Government.

According to Jana, the Libyan news agency, Colonel Qaddafi, who has ruled Libya since a 1969 coup, did not have the power to turn over the two men, Abdel Basset al-Megrahi and Lamin Khalifah Fhimah. The agency said the Libyan people, through 500 "popular committees;" would have to decide the fate of tfie two, who were indicted by Britain and the United States in 1991. The move seemed to imply that Colonel Qaddafi wanted political cover. Calling a Tuesday meeting of the General People's Congress, Libya's top legislative and executive body, could provide that. The body usually endorses major policy decisions. Publicly, the Libyan Government had been saying for some time that it objected to the prospect that the suspects, if convicted, would have io serve jail sentences in Scotland. British officials said this week that they had assured the Libyans that they could send diplomats to Scotland to monitor the prison conditions and that all Islamic strictures would be followed.

The two suspects are now under loose Government supervision in Libya, still being paid by the national airline, Libyan Arab Airways, but unable to travel abroad since their passports were confiscated. Western diplomats said here this week that Libya was also concerned that the United States will not agree to a lifting of sanctions if the two men are sent to the Netherlands for trial, but will instead move the finish line to other issues.

These diplomats seemed to confirm Libyan suspicions by saying that the sanctions would be suspended when the suspects were in custody, but that a final lifting of the embargo would not take place until Libya had met other goals, like ending support for terrorism. American allegations that Libya has been behind attacks on Americans led to bombing raids on Libya in 1986. Some Arab diplomats say the attack, on Pan Am 103, if Libyans were responsible, was probably retaliation for the American bombing.

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