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Lockerbie release casts dark shadow over Britain’s ties with US

The Times
August 22, 2009

The release of the Lockerbie bomber was last night casting a long shadow over relations between Britain and United States, where senior figures in the Obama Administration have voiced dismay over the Government’s failure to take a stand.

Downing Street insists that the decision — condemned by the White House yesterday as “outrageous and disgusting” — to let Abdul Baset Ali al-Megrahi go home to Libya was a matter solely for the SNP-led Scottish government. However, a senior US official told The Times last night: “We believe it was the wrong decision — I don’t know if the UK thinks so or not. The UK has been extraordinarily silent on this issue.”

The same official suggested that it was disingenuous for the Government to refuse to express any opinion and claim that responsibility lay only with the devolved Scottish government, because the release of al-Megrahi had wider foreign policy implications.

Although diplomats say that Washington understands the constitutional independence of the Scottish Justice Ministry and that there is no significant fall-out with Britain, the decision was described by an Administration source as a “public relations disaster for the UK”. Some US policy makers are known to believe that the Government has deliberately “walked by the other side of the street” — perhaps to earn a vast trade pay-back from a country with the biggest proven oil reserves in Africa.

Shortly after the former Prime Minister Tony Blair flew to Libya to meet Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in 2007, BG Group, Shell and BP secured substantial contracts with Libya. But yesterday David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, dismissed any suggestion that al-Megrahi’s release was linked to business deals as “a slur”. In the wake of Washington’s outrage, however, he began a concerted effort to toughen up language on the issue.

Mr Miliband warned that the way in which the Libyan Government acted over the next few days would be “very significant” in determining how the rest of the world treated this former pariah state. Later, it was disclosed that a planned visit to the country by the Duke of York next month could now be cancelled.

“Obviously, the sight of a mass murderer getting a hero’s welcome in Tripoli is deeply upsetting, deeply distressing, above all for the 270 families who grieve every day for the loss of their loved ones 21 years ago and also for anyone who has an ounce of humanity in them,” Mr Miliband said.

Downing Street also released details of letter that Gordon Brown had written to Colonel Gaddafi, urging him to treat the return of the terminally-ill bomber with “sensitivity”. But David Cameron pressed Mr Brown yesterday on whether he supported the decision by Kenny MacAskill, the Scottish Justice Secretary, to free al-Megrahi after he had served less than eight years of his 27-year sentence.

In a letter to the Prime Minister, Mr Cameron pointed out that Colonel Gaddafi’s son had publicly thanked both the Scottish authorities and the British Government for their stance, raising questions about London’s role.

“The fact that the decision to release was taken by the Scottish Justice Secretary does not preclude you, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, from now expressing your opinion on a subject that is of great public concern,” the Conservative leader said. “The public are entitled to know what you think of the decision.”

Mr Blair was accused by a former Cabinet minister of paving the way for the early release on his visit to Libya two years ago. Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who was Scottish Secretary when Pam Am flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie in 1988, alleged that the release stemmed directly from the prisoner-transfer agreement that the former Prime Minister negotiated with Colonel Gaddafi.

Sir Malcolm told The Times: “When Tony Blair negotiated the transfer option, he knew that al-Megrahi would benefit. That was the starting point for his release.” A spokesman for Mr Blair, who is travelling in China, declined to comment.

It also emerged that Mr Miliband was informed of Scotland’s desire to release the Lockerbie bomber well before the decision was made public this week. Mr MacAskill is understood to have sought advice from the Foreign Office about whether there was any legal impediment to releasing al-Megrahi from Greenock prison on compassionate grounds. According to a Downing Street source, Mr Miliband was “kept in the loop”.

P. J. Crowley, the US State Department spokesman, has confirmed that Washington repeatedly sought Downing Street’s views on the matter. “Going back literally months, we have been deeply engaged with both the Scottish government, Scottish authorities, and the British Government on this question,” he said.

“We have raised it in a variety of venues with a variety of officials at the highest levels of all governments,” Mr Crowley added. “And we expressed, as we said publicly, our firm conviction that this individual should serve out his time in jail.”

Asked if it would damage transatlantic relations, he replied: “Well, the United Kingdom and the United States have a special relationship. That is not to say that we will not have disagreements. And currently, right now, this is one that is significant.”

Times Article

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