Gaddafi son: Prisoner deal 'linked to trade and oil'

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The Independent Online

The son of Colonel Gaddafi today claimed Libya's original prisoner transfer deal with the UK had targeted the Lockerbie bomber and was directly linked to talks on trade and oil.

But, in an interview with The Herald newspaper, Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi denied it had anything to do with the eventual release last week of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi.

Speaking at his home near Tripoli Saif Gaddafi said the "deal in the desert" more than two years ago - which saw an agreement signed between Tony Blair and Libya allowing prisoner transfers - specifically targeted Megrahi.

He added however that Megrahi's name was never mentioned.

He told the Herald: "For the last seven to eight years we have been trying very hard to transfer Mr Megrahi to Libya to serve his sentence here and we have tried many times in the past to sign the PTA (prisoner transfer agreement) without mentioning Mr Megrahi, but it was obvious we were targeting Mr Megrahi and the PTA was on the table all the time.

"It was part of the bargaining deal with the UK. When Blair came here we signed the agreement. We didn't mention Mr Megrahi.

"We signed an oil deal at the same time. The commerce and politics and deals were all with the PTA."

Last week Megrahi, who has terminal prostate cancer, was allowed to leave Greenock prison to go home to die.

It caused a storm of controversy on both sides of the Atlantic with many critical of Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill's decision to release Megrahi on compassionate grounds.

Scenes of the man convicted of murdering 270 people in the December 1988 bombing of Pan Am 103 returning to Libya to a hero's welcome sparked international condemnation.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he had been "repulsed" by the scenes.

Yesterday pressure increased on Mr Brown to disclose details of trade deals negotiated with Libya after it emerged that three ministers visited the country in the 15 months leading up to the release of Megrahi.

Lord Jones, then trade minister, travelled to Libya in May last year to speak to business representatives, the Cabinet Office confirmed.

Former health minister Dawn Primarolo conducted talks with the Libyan prime minister last November, and Bill Rammell, then Foreign Office minister, held discussions with his Libyan counterparts in February.

Home Secretary Alan Johnson also met Libyan health ministers at the World Health Assembly in Geneva last year when he was health secretary.

The Libyan visits along with Saif Gaddafi's comments will add more fuel to the row over the freeing of Megrahi.

Last week, Saif Gaddafi spoke briefly on camera on the flight that took Megrahi home.

But he later faced criticism for suggesting that, in all commercial contracts for oil and gas with the UK, Megrahi's transfer was on the "negotiating table".

Saif Gaddafi told The Herald he denied there had been a quid pro quo and said his comments had been misunderstood partly because people do not understand the difference between the PTA and compassionate release.

He said: "This (the PTA) was one animal and the other was the compassionate release. They are two completely different animals. The Scottish authorities rejected the PTA."

Saif Gaddafi said the prisoner transfer agreement in Megrahi's case was "meaningless".

"He was released for completely different reasons," he added.

He said the decision "showed the Libyans that the British and Scottish are civilised people because the perception here is that they are crusaders and they hate us and Islam".

He said it had touched the minds of many Libyan people and that is why they were flying Scottish flags.

He also apologised for any perception that the Libyan government had not done its best to contain those jubilant scenes that accompanied Megrahi's arrival in Libya. He was adamant there was "no official celebration".

He went on to describe Mr MacAskill as "a great man" and said his decision had opened the way for future business.

Many families of Scottish victims had written to him saying they supported Mr MacAskill's decision, he said.

Lockerbie was "history" and that the next step was "fruitful and productive business" with Edinburgh and London, he said.

"Libya is a promising rich market and so let's talk about the future," he said.

He also confirmed that Megrahi will not be taking part in the 40th anniversary celebrations of Colonel Gaddafi coming to power next week.

A Populus poll for The Times revealed the public were sceptical about the reasons for Megrahi's release, with 27 per cent of those questioned agreeing with the decision to return him to Libya.

Almost half (45 per cent) believed it had more to do with oil than Megrahi's terminal illness while 24 per cent disagreed.

More than half thought Mr Brown had handled the matter badly by insisting it was a decision for the Scottish government - only 23 per cent said that he had done well.