Gaddafi says a Lockerbie deal is `near'

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The Independent Online
THE LIBYAN leader, ColonelMuammar Gaddafi, yesterday made his clearest statement so far that he is prepared to hand over two Lockerbie bombing suspects. In an unusually positive statement he said: "A final agreement is near. I ask the Libyan people to trust South African President Nelson Mandela and Saudi Arabia, who asked us to accept [the deal].

"In fact Mandela's word is for me stronger than a Security Council resolution ... and I have a written letter signed by [Saudi] Crown Prince Abdullah with assurances."

The United Nations is currently awaiting Col Gaddafi's decision whether to hand the men over for trial by Scottish judges in a special court in the Netherlands. In his speech, broadcast live by Libyan television, Col Gaddafi added: "It is not possible to doubt the fairness of a Scottish court, because it would not be exposed to pressures from intelligence services nor to a British Government order over whatever ruling. It would not include jurors and would sit in the Netherlands not in Britain."

In the broadcast, Col Gaddafi said a Saudi envoy had arrived in Libya yesterday and that President Mandela and the Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, had spoken to him as part of international efforts to reach a deal on Lockerbie.

However one diplomat in the region said that Col Gaddafi still seemed undecided over whether to surrender the two men, Abdel Basset al-Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah, who are accused of placing a bomb aboard Pan Am flight 103 which exploded above Lockerbie on 12 December, 1988.

Dr Jim Swire, a spokesman for the British families of those killed in the bombing said yesterday: "This looks very promising. This is Gaddafi himself spontaneously agreeing that agreement is near.

"It is very encouraging that he is saying to the Libyan people that the reassurances of Mandela, the Saudis and the Egyptians should encourage them to accept." But Dr Swire pointed out that the statement had been through several translations and advised some caution. "He hasn't said what he means by `near'. But it is all very promising." A Foreign Office spokesman said, "We hope the suspects will now be handed over. We have done all we can to persuade Libya that there is no hidden agenda."

Reports at the weekend that Britain and America had given Libya a 30- day deadline to hand over the two suspects in the Lockerbie bombing case have been denied. Dr Swire, had initially said that the deadline was "very unhelpful" but now says he believes that claims of such a deadline were media "spin" from New York. "I have spoken to the Foreign Office at some length," he said "and they have assured me it is not a 30 day deadline."

The Foreign Office said the 30 day timeframe was not a deadline but "a reasonable period of time" in which to respond. The reports followed a letter sent late last week by the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, to Col Gaddafi.

After a number of concessions in recent weeks the Libyans have yet to make a final decision but yesterday's speech suggests Col Gaddafi may soon agree to hand the two men over.