Libya gives £1.7bn to the victims of Lockerbie, but the questions remain

Families hope for an end to the tragedy as Tripoli, London and Washington finally agree on a deal, but have the real culprits been found?
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The words will be brief, the sentiment behind them questionable, but by themselves they will bring closer to an end the twisting saga of a tragedy that has destroyed families and ruined lives.

Later today in New York, Libyan diplomats will pass a letter to the UN Security Council accepting responsibility for the 1988 Lockerbie bombing and making clear its willingness to pay $2.7bn (£1.7bn) in compensation to the families of the 270 people killed.

For some, the announcement - almost 15 years after Pan Am flight 103 was blown from the skies over the small Scottish border town - will bring a degree of finality and closure. For others, it will bring fresh trauma. What it certainly will not do is answer the many questions about the bombing, its investigation or the prosecution and subsequent conviction of a Libyan agent that remain unanswered.

"We are expecting a letter either today or tomorrow, and I am expecting a meeting with the three parties - the Libyans and the British and the Americans - at the same time," Mikhail Wehbe, Syria's ambassador to the UN and current chairman of the Security Council, said yesterday afternoon before a closed-door meeting of the Security Council.

Pan Am flight 103 exploded a few minutes after 7pm on 21 December when a bomb of Semtex explosive packed inside a cassette recorder, in turn placed in a suitcase in the aircraft's hold, was detonated by a fixed timer switch. The broken jet fell onto the streets surrounding Sherwood Crescent in Lockerbie. Eleven people on the ground were killed as their homes were obliterated and fireballs swept through the cul-de-sacs.

The journey that has brought Libya to this admission has been long and tortuous. It was only in 1999 that Colonel Muammar Gaddafi agreed to hand over two suspects, Abdelbasset Ali Mohammed al-Megrahi, 50, and Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah, 46, for trial.

That £50m trial took place under Scottish law at a purpose-built court at Camp Zeist in the Netherlands. Megrahi, an undercover agent for the Libyan intelligence services, was convicted in January 2001 while his co-accused was cleared. Megrahi is currently serving a life sentence in Scotland's Barlinnie prison.

Libya's admission of guilt will be carefully worded. Last month Mr Gaddafi's son again insisted that Tripoli had not ordered the attack but said his government had to "accept the outcome of the trial".

But those words, worked out meticulously during a series of high-level meetings between the governments of Libya, Britain and the US, will almost certainly be enough to see the United Nations lift sanctions that were imposed in 1992.

After Libya lodges its letter today, Britain and the US will also submit correspondence showing they accept the offer. Britain will then table a resolution recommending that UN sanctions - suspended in 1999 when the suspects were handed over - are formally lifted.

The US is expected to abstain. France - which complained yesterday that its citizens received limited compensation for Libya's alleged bombing of UTA flight 772 in 1989, in which 171 people died - is unlikely to block the deal.

The agreement will do many things. The families of the 270 dead will each start to receive a portion of some $10m (£7m) that Libya has agreed to pay. The full amount will only be paid when the US lifts its own sanctions against Libya and takes the country off its list of state sponsors of terrorism.

For the families of those died - victims from a total of 21 countries - this is a mixed blessing. Most will accept some of the money, though some will refuse to take a single penny. In the US, the State Department will brief the families on the agreement later today.

"This is an important stage in a long journey, but not the final destination," said David Ben-Aryeah, a spokesman for UK Families Flight 103, the group which represents the British relatives.

From Libya's perspective, the payment of compensation and the partial acceptance of responsibility is a good deal. In recent years Mr Gaddafi has been making strenuous efforts to develop trade with the West and draw on the wealth of largely untapped oil reserves his country possesses.

Before relations between the North African country and the West soured utterly in the 1980s, a number of Western oil companies operated in Libya.

The head of the country's National Oil Corporation held meetings last year with representatives from Conoco, Marathon, Amerada Hess and Occidental to discuss deals worth hundreds of millions.

For some of the families, the return of Mr Gadaffi to the fold of "accepted nations" represents a sell-out. Susan Cohen of New Jersey, whose daughter Theodora was among those killed, said: "I will never get closure from this. He murdered my only daughter. Gaddafi did it. Let's not play around here."

What many of the relatives, including Jim Swire, whose daughter Flora was killed, continue to point out is the huge number of number of unanswered questions surrounding the bombing.

Why, for instance, did Western investigators suddenly focus on Libya, when for several years they believed that two Syrian-backed Palestinian terrorist groups - the Frankfurt-based PFLP-GC and the lesser-known PPSF - were responsible? Why, Mr Swire has asked, did flight 103 explode 38 minutes after take-off from Heathrow en route to New York - a timescale that has the exact hallmark of the sort of "ice-cube" timer that the PFLP-GC had used before? What does one make of the evidence presented by the prosecution?

Why did the CIA need to pay its star witness, Abdul Majid Giaka, $2.7m (£1.7m) to give evidence? Why was that evidence only forthcoming after he had received the money?

Why did the Scottish judges choose to accept part of the testimony of the Maltese shopkeeper Tony Gauci, who sold Megrahi clothes that were later found wrapped around the bomb? Why was the court persuaded when he admitted he could not definitely identify the suspect?

For the people of Lockerbie, today's events will be just another marker in their efforts to put things behind them. "We have tried to move on as a community," said Marjorie McQueen, a local councillor who said people were saddened that their town would always be synonymous with terror and tragedy. "If the relatives can get the closure they are looking for from an admission of responsibility from Libya, which is much more important to them than dollars, then we will be very happy for them."

In Sherwood Crescent, a monument to the town's dead sits amid a memorial garden of willows, forsythia and daisies that grow where the houses once stood. Mary Ward, a local resident who narrowly escaped with her life on that terrible day, was ambivalent. "There are still questions," she said. "Will more [of those] involved be jailed for their involvement? Surely one man cannot take all the responsibility?"

JOHN MOSEY - BACKS DEAL

'No sense of closure but we will take the money'

Despite his misgivings, the Rev John Mosey will accept the settlement and has a forgiving attitude to Libya.

Mr Mosey, pictured with his wife, Lisa, lost his daughter Helga, 19, on the flight. He said: "We are taking the money because it's the only way for Libya to get back into the civilised world.

"We made certain demands on them and it looks as if they are going to comply with those demands.''

But he felt the deal did not offer a sense of closure over the tragedy, with its many unanswered questions. He also felt it could be a distraction from the relatives' demand for an independent inquiry.

Helga, who had a place to study music at Lancaster University, was on the plane because of a twist of fate. She wanted to fly to Newark, where she was a nanny, but could not get a direct flight. Tragically for her, there were seats to New York.

Arifa Akbar

MATT BERKLEY - REFUSES DEAL

'I don't want to give up my right to sue'

Mr Berkley has refused compensation for the death of his brother Alistair because he is not convinced of Libya's guilt.

His parents are accepting the offer of compensation for Alistair, a 29-year-old law lecturer. As an individual family member, Mr Berkley, 42, a consultant from Oxford, would be entitled to £1m.

But, he said: "I haven't seen ... credible evidence that Libya did it or that any admission by the Libyans would be truthful, rather than simply the result of them being put under enormous pressure."

He fears that if Tripoli's expected admission of guilt was accepted, it would put an end to further investigations in to the bombing.

"There are several implications of accepting money. One is that there would be politicians who will say the relatives can derive comfort from the compensation and that the matter is now closed.

"Also, there is a long list of organisations and people that I can't subsequently sue. I don't want to give up my right to sue. New evidence may appear tomorrow proving who was responsible."

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