Libya stalls on Lockerbie

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COLONEL Muammar Gaddafi played for time yesterday, on whether to hand over the two Libyans suspected of planting the Lockerbie bomb.

The Libyan government was due to give its response to the Anglo-American proposals for a trial in The Hague under Scottish law. But, instead, Libya sent a letter to the United Nations saying that they wanted more time to study the terms.

"Libya is anxious to arrive at a settlement of this dispute and to turn over a new page in its relations with the states concerned," said the letter from Ramadan Barge, Libya's charge d'affaires at the UN in New York.

The letter, the first official reaction from Tripoli, said that Libya's legal authorities had asked for international experts "more familiar with the laws of the states" to help them.

Two Libyan suspects - Ali Basset al-Megrahi and Al-Amin Khlaifa Fhima - are accused of planting a bomb aboard the PanAm Flight 103, which exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, killing 270 people.

Colonel Gaddafi is clearly worried that Libya is being bounced into a decision by well-orchestrated diplomacy from the West.

Libya is coming under enormous pressure, even from the Arab League, to accept the deal.

The new Anglo-American proposals go a long way to meet the Libyan terms but a number of issues are still unresolved. The Libyans have stipulated that they wanted an international panel of judges, but the proposal offers only a Scottish panel of judges. The Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, has said that the terms "are not negotiable".

UN sanctions are being used as the carrot and stick for Libya's acceptance.

Britain and America have already tabled a resolution suspending UN sanctions against Libya as soon as the two suspects were extradited to Holland.

Tripoli has asked the United Nations Security Council to put off endorsing the plan until the Libyan government has had an opportunity to examine it further.

The fact that the Libyans sent the letter suggested that Colonel Gaddafi's regime was keen to resolve the 10-year-old terrorist case in which Pan Am Flight 103 was bombed out of the sky. Semtex explosive had been packed inside a Toshiba cassette player, itself placed inside a Samsonite case and placed aboard the flight.

"Libya is anxious to arrive at a settlement of this dispute and to turn over a new page in its relations with the states concerned," it stated.

The letter said that the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, needed more time to provide Libya with assistance.

In London, the Foreign Office said that it saw no need to delay the Security Council resolution.