It's amazing what a body can do. Back in 1986, after Alec Collett's corpse was videoed swinging from a noose – we had to assume this gruesome piece of cinema showed him, for his face was covered – the Lebanese concluded that the British freelance journalist was killed in revenge for Margaret Thatcher's decision to allow Ronald Reagan to air-raid Libya from airbases in the UK. That's what his killers had told us. Three other hostages – an American librarian and two British teachers – met similar fates shortly after the American aircraft had attacked Tripoli and Benghazi, killing scores of civilians including Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's adopted daughter.
But this week, with the help of British intelligence agents – and why they should have been involved, no one, of course, has explained – Collett's body has been recovered in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. And praise has been heaped upon the British as well as the Lebanese government by UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon. So one British Government lets the Americans use British bases to kill Libyans – and another British Government laps up the gratitude of the UN for digging up the victim's body.
The details of Collett's original 1985 kidnapping were almost mundane. He was writing about the suffering of Palestinian refugees in UN camps and was returning to Beirut one March afternoon when he was stopped by armed men close to a checkpoint of the Shia Muslim Amal movement (whose boss is now, quite by chance, the speaker of the Lebanese parliament). Collett's sin appears to have been simple: he was carrying two passports, in one of which was an Israeli stamp – because he had also been visiting refugee camps in the occupied territories.
But how has the narrative changed! No talk this week of just why poor Alec Collett was so cruelly done to death. No mention of the Thatcher decision or the US raids or of the reason for those attacks – because Gaddafi had supposedly organised the bombing of a Berlin nightclub, killing a US serviceman. Indeed, even Gaddafi has been airbrushed from the body-recovery story – after all, he is now our friend, described as "statesmanlike" by our very own Jack Straw for supposedly (a word you always have to use about the loony of Libya) giving up his nuclear ambitions.
Even more painful – and thus even more in need of deletion from the story – is the fact that the first two claims of responsibility for Collett's kidnapping came from the Iraqi Shia Dawa party, demanding the release of prisoners in Kuwait. This is the same Dawa which now forms a foundation of the democratic, US-supported government in Iraq – but who were "terrorists" in 1986, fighting against the US-supported government of Saddam in Iraq.
In other words, Alec Collett, whose second wife lives in New York and who had three children, may now be laid to rest. The British authorities, basking in their good deed of digging up his remains, will fervently hope that the matter is no longer open for discussion. The other bones found alongside Collett's near the town of Ait el-Foukhar in the Bekaa Valley can be chucked back into the soil – as were others in recent years which did not prove to be Collett's – as unidentified. British intelligence clearly wasn't interested in them – but why then, it might be asked, were they so interested in Alec Collett? As a woman intimately involved in the events that led to Collett's murder might have said, it's a funny old world.
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