Mandela breaks Lockerbie stalemate

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The Independent Online
BY PERSUADING the mercurial Colonel Gaddafi to name a date to hand over the two Lockerbie suspects, President Nelson Mandela has put his immense personal credibility on the line to apparently achieve the long-sought-after trial over the "most appalling crime since the Second World War".

In front of a public meeting in Tripoli yesterday Colonel Gaddafi said that when the South African President and the Saudi ruler, King Fahd, "ask me to let it into their hands, it would not be responsible for me to set conditions".

Mr Mandela and King Fahd then embraced the Libyan leader, who was dressed in a hat and a brown woollen cape.

On 21 December 1988, a Pan Am Boeing 747 jet exploded at 31,000 feet and crashed on the town of Lockerbie, killing 270 passengers, crew and people on the ground.

The suspects, Libyans Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah, arealleged to be the agents who planted the bombs, on behalf of the Libyan intelligence agency, in revenge for the US bombing of Tripoli in 1986. Charges against the men were laid in November 1991 in Scotland.

UN sanctions against Libya have been in place since Colonel Gaddafi refused to hand over the men in 1992. Stalemate has been the status quo.

In the mid-1990s Mr Mandela was approached by the families of the victims to act as an honest broker between Libya and the UN.

The families of the British victims had nothing but praise yesterday for Mr Mandela and his commitment to justice.

Their spokesman, Dr Jim Swire, said: "He hasn't just got involved, he has been intimately involved in it since the days of John Major.

"He wrote to Mr Major begging him to make some sort of compromise and the Conservative administration failed to do so.

"It wasn't until theLabour government was elected that change began to take place."

In spite of many false hopes, Mr Mandela stuck at it. Using the old non- aligned alliances he, the Saudi rulers and Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak have made slow progress negotiating between the two sides.

A breakthrough came last summer when the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, persuaded the Americans to agree that the trial could be held in a neutral country. This was no mean achievement as the United States loves to be seen as playing hardball with Libya.

Mr Cook said that the trial would be held under Scottish law, in front of Scottish judges, but not in Scotland. The Netherlands was agreed as the venue.

At first Colonel Gaddafi seemed to accept the proposal, then asked for further guarantees. He was not happy about the prospect of the men serving sentences in a Scottish prison, if convicted.

An offer of UN supervision at a prison was thought to have broken the impasse. But as the weeks passed, hope again began to fade that the trial would ever take place.

Then yesterday came the news that Mr Mandela, in yet another visit to Tripoli, had persuaded Colonel Gaddafi not only to hand over the two men, but also to set a date less than a month away.

The crucial line reads: "The Jamahiriya [Gaddafi] agrees to ensure that the two suspects would be available for the Secretary-General of the United Nations to take custody of them on or before 6 April 1999 for their appearance before the court."

The potential speed of the handover will take many by surprise. The Labour MP Tam Dalyell said: "This is a challenge to the Crown officers to get their skates on. They had better have their evidence ready."

The personal stamp of Mr Mandela has persuaded the world that maybe, this time, it is all for real.

The Rev John Mosey, who lost his daughter in the disaster, said: "Gaddafi has said things in the past but they have not happened. But Mr Mandela has been very heavily involved and he has been a good ally."

If Colonel Gaddafi does deliver, the spotlight will turn on to Britain and America, to see whether their evidence against the men comes up to scratch.

Although the families welcomed the trial, this is not the end of the line. The Rev Mosey said: "It is a huge step in the direction we have been pressing for." But he said their main aim, of an independent inquiry, is blocked by the possibility of a criminal trial.

"Whether the judge throws it out or whether they are found guilty," he said, "we will have the evidence examined in a court of law and find out who knew what and why this very preventable disaster was allowed to happen."

Dr Swire said: "The absence of this trial has been used by those in authority to obstruct us in our calls for an inquiry into why nothing was done to prevent the bombing in 1988. And that needs so desperately to be looked into, and answers given as to why there was no effective protection. That is one of the issues that's not been resolved in the last 10 years."

The Rev Mosey said the Prime Minister had told themthat anything which came out of the trial would be followed up.

"While he didn't exactly promise us an inquiry, he did indicate that such an inquiry would happen," he said.