The dictator and the deal in the desert

The dictator was Colonel Gaddafi. The desert was the Sahara. The deal was to secure the handover of the men suspected of the Lockerbie bombing. In the second extract from his new book about warlords and peacekeepers, William Shawcross recalls a historic encounter
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For almost 10 years Libya's Colonel Muammar Gaddafi had been refusing to hand over the two suspects for the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie on 21 Dec 1988, despite crippling UN sanctions. The stumbling block had been the insistence that the two be tried in Scotland, a condition rejected by Gaddafi. But in summer 1998, Britain relented, agreeing to a trial under Socttish law, but in a third country. As the 10th anniversary approached, and amid signs that Gaddafi wanted a deal, Kofi Annan travelled to Libya hoping to clinch an agreement...

On 4 December, the evening before he left Tunis for Libya, Kofi Annan still had no idea what to expect. He had a message from Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State, and a call from Robin Cook, the British Foreign Secretary. They were very different. Albright said that he should not proceed unless he really thought he was going to get something from Gaddafi, and the United States had no indication that he would. She reminded him that he had no authority to negotiate, that he should make no deals: "We do not want a package.''

Cook, by contrast, was keen for Annan to proceed. Like Albright he reminded Annan that he had no room to negotiate, but he thought that Annan's act of going might be enough to sway Gaddafi.

The next morning Annan took off with his staff and some eight journalists, expecting to fly direct to Sirte in Libya. He had obtained the permission of the UN sanctions committee. He said that after 10 years he thought the families wanted to put this behind them. "I hope when I have met with Colonel Gaddafi I can come up with a solution which is satisfactory to all."

As soon as the Tunisair plane was over Libya, there came the first surprise of the day. Libyan air traffic control ordered the pilot to divert to Tripoli. There, most of the journalists were forced to remain.

We took off again in Gaddafi's own plane, a venerable 707, fitted out with a little fake grotto with plastic rocks and trees, private bedroom, shower and sitting room, a glass-fronted bookcase filled with Gaddafi's collected works and an ancient telecommunications facility which apparently no longer worked. The plane was under the command of Captain Chub, a mild, sad-eyed man who said he had been Gaddafi's pilot for 29 years, ever since he became Leader. The plane had been his personal carrier since 1976.

At Sirte airport Annan was welcomed by the foreign minister, Omar al-Muntasser, and a somewhat bedraggled guard of honour. In the VIP lounge the foreign minister offered Annan coffee. "Real coffee, not the sort of black water you get in America,'" he said. An avuncular figure, with a walrus moustache and an easy manner in his comfortable tweed jacket, al-Muntasser said he used to roam all over the States, but now he was confined by sanctions to New York City when he went there. "Maybe that will soon change,'' said Annan. After 10 minutes of small talk we set off in a fleet of black Volvos and Mercedes to drive at a steady 50 mph along an excellent, empty road through the desert.

Then there was another long wait. We watched CNN broadcast the news from Atlanta that the Libyan News Agency had announced that Annan might not be able to meet with the Leader at all. Annan remained certain he would. "These regimes work at their own speed and with their own realities," he said. He was correct.

At about 6pm the black cars arrived to take him and a few of his staff into the desert to the colonel. A few miles out of town everyone was told to get out of the cars and climb into four-wheel drives. At this point most of those still with the Secretary General were forcibly separated from him and compelled to stand out in the cold until they became so angry with the brusque Libyan officials that they were driven to the airport to await him.

Gaddafi is said to spend as much time as possible in the desert; he apparently lives in a mobile trailer with female security guards. He likes to receive foreign dignitaries in a large tent. Annan was driven there. It was a rather garish affair, heated by a bonfire on the open windward side of the tent. The Leader greeted him on a crutch, the result of a recent injury.

Annan had been told that the Leader had two personalities - the outside, bombastic one and the private rational one. This was the one on display to the Secretary General. According to Annan, Gaddafi appeared in command of himself and referred to specific clauses of the UN resolutions, saying that the wording was so stringent that Libya might never be able to prove it was in compliance. He said he feared a situation where sanctions were never lifted.

Sitting opposite the colonel on a sofa, with the interpreter on a chair between them, Annan assured him that the British and Americans were acting in good faith and wanted to resolve the matter after 10 years. He said that the Scottish legal system was open and fair. He also stressed that it was clear that once the sanctions were suspended it would be almost impossible for the Security Council to reimpose them.

Gaddafi complained that the embargo on spare parts for planes had caused a crash which killed 140 people. How could people with conscience do this? He told Annan that the decision would be made by the People's Congress. He claimed that decisions of this nature were not imposed by him but were made by the people.

Gaddafi asked what guarantees Libya had that the UK and US would not find new reasons not to lift the sanctions. Annan acknowledged these concerns. Appealing to Gaddafi's vanity, he said: "In life sometimes we have to have the courage and the vision and wisdom to do what is good for our people and nation. You have been leader for a long time, you have tried to build this nation, and you've taken some tough decisions and I think you are capable of one more.''

Gaddafi also got into a discussion of what it meant to be "a terrorist". He said he had always been passionately anti-colonial and did work with freedom fighters. "I helped Mandela for a long time, I helped Museveni by air-dropping weapons to him close to Kampala, I helped Mugabe, I helped Sam Nujoma [of Namibia], I helped Chissano of Mozambique. All these people I helped now travel around the world as heads of state and are kissed by the same people who call me a terrorist!"

"But what about Lockerbie?'' I asked Annan afterwards.

"Ah, but they deny that," he replied.

"We had a healthy discussion," Annan said later. "At the end of it he said, 'I am prepared to try and work this out with you, not because of threats against us, but because of the man you are, a brother African from a friendly state'.''

Annan was driven back to Sirte airport, where he made a brief statement to the cameras: "I found the Leader in good health. Thank you very much."

"In good health?'' I asked Annan later. He said that that was what they had agreed he would say, so that it would not look as if Gaddafi had been unduly influenced on Lockerbie by Annan's visit.

Annan left Sirte in good spirits. "I saw this part of the process as confidence building," he said. Libyan officials and lawyers who had been working to break the deadlock seemed to agree. The Foreign Ministry said that a settlement was "close" after Annan's talks. Near the little plastic grotto on Gaddafi's old 707 to Tripoli, I sat next to one of the Libyan lawyers who had been negotiating in New York. He told me that he thought that now the only issue was sanctions. Libya was prepared to concede that the two men would be imprisoned in Scotland if found guilty.

On the Tunisair flight out from Tripoli, the crew provided champagne. Annan talked to the journalists and said he regarded this visit, his first to Libya, as part of a long process. "Gaddafi doesn't want to be seen to impose a decision."

Annan was, as ever, the opposite of confrontational. "We don't make these societies," he said afterwards. "We have to deal with them as they are. They live their own realities. They have their own way of taking decisions. You have to leave it to them to find their own way of doing it."

Putting trust in dictators does not always work. But given the weird, brutal and opaque nature of Gaddafi's rule, Annan's method of calm persuasion may well have been the only way of trying to ensure that some of those believed to be guilty were finally brought to justice.

A few weeks later Mandela and the Saudis sent a joint delegation to Libya. The combination of Annan, Mandela and the Saudis bore fruit, and on 5 April 1999 the two suspects were flown to the Netherlands for trial, just over a decade after Pan Am 103 had been blown out of the sky.

Tomorrow: the future of the UN

'Deliver Us From Evil' by William Shawcross is published on 3 April (Bloomsbury, £20)