Libya gains a breathing space

NEW YORK - The United States, Britain and France formally introduced a United Nations Security Council resolution yesterday to tighten sanctions against Libya for the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am airliner. But they have given Tripoli some breathing room before the measures are adopted.

The Libyan Foreign Minister, Omar al-Muntasser, said his government was committed to the surrender of two men accused of the bombing over Lockerbie, but he refused to set a date for the handover, a prerequisite by the allies to stave off the new measures.

The resolution, which bans the sale of some oil-related equipment and freezes some financial assets, is to put pressure on Libya to allow the two suspects to stand trial in Britain or the US. Oil production, Libya's lifeline, will not be banned. In 1992 the Council imposed an air and arms embargo on Libya and a downgrading of diplomatic ties. A senior diplomat said that the three allies would press for passage of the resolution next week unless the Libyans informed Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the United Nations Secretary-General, 'in a formal way' that the two men would surrender within two weeks.

The two suspects, Abdel Baset Ali al-Megrahi and Al-Amin Khalifa Fhimah, are accused of planting the bomb that blew up the plane on 21 December 1988, over Lockerbie, killing all 259 aboard and 11 on the ground.

Mr Muntasser said the handover was 'only a matter of time'. But he said he had not been able yet to give Mr Boutros-Ghali a date for the surrender, which he stressed was up to the accused themselves.

He repeated earlier requests by Libya, already rejected by Mr Boutros-Ghali, that Tripoli have time until mid-December, the next Security Council review of the 1992 sanctions regime.

'Members want to hear from the Secretary-General first next week before they make a decision,' said a diplomat close to the negotiations. 'It depends whether Libya is serious in conversations with Boutros-Ghali or whether they are just stringing it out.'

Libya has said it is willing to let the men go to trial in Scotland, if they agreed. In Tripoli on Thursday, a lawyer representing the suspects said they would meet early next week to advise their clients on whether to stand trial there.

TUNIS - Libyans demonstrated against the sanctions in front of their leader, Muammar Gaddafi, and rejected Western threats over the surrender of two Lockerbie bomb suspects, the Libyan news agency Jana said yesterday, Reuter reports.