Balls at odds with Brown: 'We didn't want Megrahi released'

More trouble for PM as Gaddafi's son rules out payouts for IRA victims
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Indy Politics

Gordon Brown's problems over Libya intensified yesterday as hopes faded for early compensation for IRA bomb victims and a senior minister contradicted his stance over the release of the Lockerbie bomber.

The son of Col Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan leader, said his government would oppose demands for payouts to families whose relatives were killed by Semtex supplied to the IRA in the 1980s and 1990s. He issued the defiant message hours after the Prime Minister offered government help to the campaigners pressing for compensation from the north African state.

Saif al-Islam Gaddafi said: "Anyone can knock on our door. You go to the court. They have their lawyers. We have our lawyers." Asked if his initial response to the compensation demand would be "no", he replied: "Of course".

Mr Brown hurriedly announced plans to give help to the compensation campaigners after leaked papers showed he had refused to take up their case with the Libyan regime.

The Prime Minister's spokesman denied the move amounted to a U-turn, insisting it was "entirely consistent with the approach taken so far".

Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, increased the confusion in the government ranks over its attitude to the release of terminally-ill Abdulbaset Ali al-Megrahi. Mr Balls told the BBC: "...none of us wanted to see the release of al-Megrahi. But that wasn't a judgment made by the British Government, it was a decision by the Scottish Executive."

His comments undermine those made last week by Mr Brown, who said he "respects" the decision to free Megrahi. David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, also confirmed that Libya was told that the Prime Minister did not want to see the prisoner die in a Scottish jail. Asked about the apparent contradiction in ministers' statements, Mr Brown's spokesman said: "The Prime Minister set out the position last week and I do not think I am going to go any further than that."

Mr Miliband also sought to play down the confusion over Megrahi's release. He told Sky News: "We're talking about a convicted mass murderer here. I think all Ed [Balls] was saying is that no one has any sympathy or grief for Mr Megrahi, but the Scottish authorities had to come to a difficult judgment, a judgment that we respect..."

The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats seized on the conflicting messages last night as they renewed demands for a public inquiry into the UK's relations with Libya.

William Hague, the shadow Foreign Secretary, said: "We have yet to hear two government ministers agree on a single aspect of the decision to release Mr al-Megrahi. But this is not surprising considering the lack of leadership the Prime Minister has shown."

Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, said: "The Prime Minister is still failing to explain why he rejected the idea of the British Government negotiating directly for compensation for the IRA victims' families."

The Scottish National Party's foreign affairs spokesman, Angus Robertson, said: "The Prime Minister must make a clear statement setting out exactly where his Government stands."

Saif Gaddafi said Gordon Brown had not been involved in talks between London, Edinburgh and Tripoli over the release of the bomber. He said the discussions had been "very technical... not something that should be discussed at a leadership level."

Mr Gaddafi also attacked British politicians for "trying to use this tragedy for their own political agenda", which he said was "completely immoral".

FBI protest: MacAskill's 2am letter

When the FBI fired off a letter of protest to the Scottish Justice Secretary over the Lockerbie bomber's release, it was the middle of the night in Britain – but that did not deter the men from the bureau. They rang Lothian and Border Police at 2am to ask them where Kenny MacAskill lived. They were curtly informed that delivering a letter to Mr MacAskill's home at that time was "out of the question" and told to hand it in to the night doorman at the Scottish Government headquarters.