Ten-year search for truth nears its climax

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The Independent Online
THE TORTUOUS path from the Libyan capital of Tripoli to the Dutch air base of Camp Zeist began on 14 November 1991 when charges against Ali Basset Ali al-Magrahi, chief of airline security for Libyan Arab Airlines, and Lamin Khalifa Fhimah, the airline's station manager in Malta, were announced in Washington and Edinburgh.

The charges seemed to crystallise the numerous theories about which pariah leadership had orchestrated the Lockerbie bombing. Was it the Libyans avenging Ronald Reagan's attack on Tripoli in 1986? Or was it an Iranian response - the initial suspects - perhaps aided by Syria, to the accidental shooting down of one of their airliners by the USS Vincennes in July 1988? Or even Palestinian terrorists deciding to eliminate a CIA team preparing to rescue Western hostages in Beirut?

Unsurprisingly, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan president, refused to hand the men over, calling for an international inquiry and offering to send the dispute to neutral bodies. This led to United Nations sanctions against the country in 1992, including a worldwide ban on air travel and arms sales, which have remained in place ever since.

Stalemate ensued. In 1994, Britain rejected an offer by Libya to allow the suspects to stand trial before a Muslim court anywhere in the world. The US offered a US$4m reward for information leading to an arrest. Two years later, when efforts to secure a deal appeared to have reached an impasse, Nelson Mandela, the South African president, was approached by the families of the victims to act as an honest broker between Libya and the UN. One of Mr Mandela's first moves was to urge Britain and the US to accept a trial in a neutral state.

Mr Mandela put his immense personal credibility on the line as he called on high-level ministers in Egypt and Saudi Arabia to facilitate a deal. A series of meetings took place in Tripoli, but the talks made little headway.

Then last summer, the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, persuaded the Americans to agree to a trial in a neutral country. Colonel Gaddafi agreed. But he insisted that, if found guilty, the two men should not serve their sentences in Scotland.

Pressure built for the suspects to be handed over ahead of the 10th anniversary of the bombing last December, with United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, and Jim Swire, whose daughter Flora died in the bombing, among those to travel to Libya. Annan went to Libya only after an assurance that he would leave with a cast-iron agreement that the two men would be surrendered to face justice in a court in The Hague - but no such deal was secured.

The prospects of a handover looked bleak, with Colonel Gaddafi choosing the anniversary, 21 December, to tell Dutch television he wanted the men tried by an international court.

British ministers made clear they would not compromise over holding the trial under Scottish law, and for sentences to be served in Scotland. Robin Cook said: "The crime was committed in Scotland, logically the place they should serve their sentence is Scotland." Britain and the US issued an ultimatum for the men to be handed over within a 30-day time limit. An official from Libya's foreign affairs ministry responded by saying that those making the demands "do not really want to conduct a fair trial".

Britain and the US threatened to tighten sanctions, but an offer of UN supervision at whichever Scottish prison the men were sent to is thought to have broken the impasse. Then early last month, following a meeting with Mr Mandela, Colonel Gaddafi said in an unusually positive statement: "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."

Whether the outcome, doubts remain. Some of the Lockerbie family groups and politicians have also expressed fears that Libya has been scapegoated. Tam Dalyell, the Labour MP, has suggested that Iran and Syria were guilty, but that the on-going campaign against Saddam Hussein meant that it was politically expedient to present these nations favourably.

Jim Swire, who represents the UK victims, suspects the men will be acquitted on legal grounds, but believes it is important to hold the trial so that all the information can be uncovered. "We want to know if they are guilty or innocent because it has prevented anyone taking an earnest look at who was behind it," he said recently.