US/Libyan relations: Washington is no stranger to buttering up Gaddafi

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Indy Politics

Was an agreement over an oil deal for BP one of the reasons for releasing convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al Megrahi?

Jack Straw, for one, claimed as much last year, but who knows for certain. Yet what is more surprising than the fact oil may have lubricated the prisoner’s release, is the apparent shock of the US authorities. Do the politicians on Capitol Hill have short memories or do they simply choose to forget the way in which US government, along with that of the UK, assiduously reached out to Libya in the aftermath of Megrahi’s 2001 conviction to “bring it into the international fold”?

One of the reasons for the diplomatic undertaking was to persuade Muammar Gaddafi to hand over details of a WMD programme, which in truth was only ever at the most nascent stage. Yet a clue to another factor came in a Reuters article from the day in September 2004 when George Bush announced he was lifting the US trade embargo on Libya, imposed almost two decades earlier. “The president’s actions,” it said, “[will] allow US firms to invest in Libya and buy its oil for the first time since 1986.”

Just four months later, US companies Occidental and Chevron Texaco were among those which received the first contracts when Libya auctioned exploration contracts for parcels of its 41.5bn barrels of proven reserves. In the first half of 2008 alone, Libyan exports to the US totalled $2.75bn.

Few who attended the original Lockerbie trial at the sinister, specially-built court complex in the Netherlands, will forget the hearings. There was a surreal cast of characters made up of defendants, witnesses, relatives of those who died, as well as spooks and diplomats. A number of people – among them, Jim Swire, whose daughter was one of those who died aboard Pan Am flight 103 – were unimpressed with the evidence against Megrahi and his co-accused, who was cleared. Never adequately answered in the view of many, was why the investigating authorities suddenly shifted focus onto Libya when investigators initially believed one of two Syrian-backed Palestinian groups most likely planted the Semtex onboard. Mr Swire thought the trial raised more questions than it answered.

Yet if the trial was strange, so too was its aftermath. Almost immediately, officials from the US, UK and Libya embarked on secret meetings to broker a deal. Eventually, Libya agreed to a carefully-worded admission of responsibility for the bombing and to pay $10m in compensation to the families of the 270 victims. Mr Gaddafi – who, the world was told to accept, had no inkling that his intelligence agents were involved in a plot to bring down a US airliner - got his own reward in 2006, when Libya was removed from the State Department’s list of sponsors of terror, further opening up trade opportunities.

Many relatives were furious about such deals and the “blood money” they were offered. Susan and Daniel Cohen from New Jersey, lost their daughter, Theadora, when the Boeing 747 was ripped apart, en route to New York. They hated the way in which Mr Gaddafi was feted, saying: “I will never get closure from this.” They were equally saddened last year when it was announced that Megrahi was to be released.

But sadness is different to surprise. Speaking from the US last night, Mrs Cohen said she had suspected oil had been behind Megrahi’s release since it was first announced. “[There has been] enormous pressure from the oil companies,” she said. “The fact is that Gaddafi has oil. His human rights record, the people he killed, that does not matter”

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