Lockerbie trial could begin `in a fortnight' Pan Am two `handed over in a fortnight'

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN, THE US and relatives of the victims of the Lockerbie bombing were last night clinging to hopes that the two Libyan suspects could yet be handed over before the 10th anniversary of the bombing in a fortnight's time, despite this weekend's inconclusive trip to Libya by Kofi Annan, the United Nations Secretary-General.

Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, said yesterday that he hoped the trial could begin on 21 December, the 10th anniversary of the bombing.

Speaking after a 90-minute meeting with the Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, Mr Annan praised the Libyans as being "serious" in wanting to settle the affair, and predicted they might do so "in the not too distant future". Mr Cook, after hearing a report of the meeting from Mr Annan, proclaimed he felt "qualified optimism".

Tripoli also indicated that a deal was possible. The Libyan Foreign Minister, Omar al-Muntasser, said: "I am sure that the efforts of the Secretary- General will show positive results very soon."

The failure to secure the handover of Abdel Basset Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah, the two Libyan intelligence operatives accused of planting the bomb aboard Pan Am Flight 103, has been a disappointment for Mr Annan. He went to Libya only after an assurance that he would get anagreement that the two men would be surrendered to face justice in a court in The Hague.

Jim Swire, spokesman for the British families who lost relatives at Lockerbie, said he was delighted that Mr Annan and Colonel Gaddafi had met, adding that some of the Libyan complaints over the issue were justified. He continued: "The main thing is that the two men did meet because Gaddafi is busy saying he fears a trick and that he also feels that his country has been left out of negotiations about the trial, which is true, they have. What he needs, I think, is reassurance that this really is an offer of a fair trial and I can't think of anyone better than Kofi Annan to give that reassurance."

Tripoli agreed in principle to last summer's Anglo-American offer of a trial in a third country under Scottish law, and with Scottish judges.

The one ostensible sticking point is Britain's insistence that, if convicted, the suspects should serve their sentences in a Scottish jail. Despite Britain's promise of unlimited consular access for them, Libya continues to object to this condition. Yesterday Mr Cook insisted there could be no compromise on the place of imprisonment.

Mr Cook said: "The crime was committed in Scotland, logically the place they should serve their sentence is Scotland. We have no objection to the United Nations or Libya sending any number of observers to make sure that the standards are humane and people are properly looked after."

The matter could be resolved by Sunday, after this week's meeting of Libya's parliament. According to UN sources, Mr Muntasser promised Mr Annan he would ask the Congress to approve the deal during its five- day session which starts tomorrow. Dr Swire said he was hopeful of a solution "within weeks".

London and Washington are still convinced Tripoli wants to clinch a deal, and thus end the sanctions which have largely isolated Col Gaddafi's country.