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Lockerbie bomber allegations put strain on UK-US relations

US officials want an independent inquiry into the release of the Lockerbie bomber Abdel Baset al-Megrahi after a new report shows the willingness of the former British government to help the Libyan gain his freedom.

Unidentified crash investigators inspect the nose section of the crashed Pan Am Flight 103, a Boeing 747 airliner in a field near Lockerbie, Scotland, Dec.23, 1988.

The bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 killed all 270 on board

The controversy surrounding the release of al-Megrahi in 2009 has taken on a new complexion after the release of a new report revealing that Britain's former Labour government actively assisted Libya in securing al-Megrahi's freedom, prompting angry calls for a full investigation from US politicians.

The report by Britain's top civil servant Gus O'Donnell suggested that the British government under ex-Premier Gordon Brown did "all it could" to force through the release of Libyan national al-Megrahi who was jailed for life for blowing up Pan Am Flight 103 over the village of Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988. The attack killed all 270 people on board, including 189 Americans.

Cabinet Secretary O'Donnell's report showed that the British government pushed through the ratification of a prisoner transfer agreement with Libya while detailing how Tripoli could apply for al-Megrahi's transfer under that agreement or alternatively apply for a compassionate release on the grounds that al-Megrahi was suffering with terminal cancer. The compassionate release plea ultimately led to al-Megrahi being released.

The report also stated that the Brown administration clearly outlined to the Scottish government, which has devolved judicial powers, that there was no legal barrier to al-Megrahi being transferred to Libya. Some critics of the release process have accused the British government of heaping pressure on its Scottish counterpart to achieve the release on Libya's behalf.

Al-Megrahi was diagnosed with cancer in 2008 and was given just months to live. He is still alive in Libya almost two years after his diagnosis. He returned to a hero's welcome in August 2009, a situation that has angered many critics in the United States.

Libyan pressure over al-Megrahi threatened relations

Al-Megrahi with son of the Libyan leader Seif al-Islam Gadhafi

Al-Megrahi (l.) was given a hero's welcome on his return

The report states that the British government was concerned that business relations with Libya would be damaged if al-Megrahi died from cancer in a Scottish jail, with Libya claiming that such a demise would be akin to al-Megrahi serving a death sentence.

"Policy was therefore progressively developed that HMG (Her Majesty's Government) should do all it could, whilst respecting devolved competences, to facilitate an appeal by the Libyans to the Scottish Government for Mr. al-Megrahi's transfer under the PTA (Prisoner Transfer Agreement) or release on compassionate grounds," the report said.

"(Libyan leader Moammar) Ghadafi had placed a lot of pressure on the British to ensure the release of al-Megrahi," Dana Moss, a Libya expert and Adjunct Fellow at the Washington Institute, told Deutsche Welle. "For Ghadafi, the return of al-Megrahi prior to the celebration of his 40 years of power was a significant coup, enabling him to thumb his nose at the West and demonstrate Libya's foreign policy leverage. The timing of his release was highly significant."

"One should also look at what had been taking place in Swiss-Libyan relations near the time of al-Megrahi's release, which may have been a warning sign to the UK as to what might happen should al-Megrahi die in his Scottish prison."

In 2008, Ghadafi’s son Hannibal was arrested in Geneva for the assault of two maids in his Geneva hotel. In retaliation, Libya arrested two Swiss nationals on spurious charges, cut flights between Switzerland and Libya, withdrew five billion euros from Swiss banks, and placed restrictions on Swiss companies.

Current British Prime Minister David Cameron recently told parliament that the report showed that the decision to release al-Megrahi was "profoundly wrong" but it was a decision taken by the Scottish government alone.

Allegations of energy contracts traded for release

Cameron also said that the report ended speculation, fostered by some in the United States, that al-Megrahi's release was secured by the British government in return for energy contracts in Libya for British oil giant BP, and that the findings negated the need for a new investigation into this accusation and that of complicity by the British government.

The British Petroleum (BP) logo

BP's interests in Libya are among its most important

The O'Donnell report found that there was no evidence that BP had been involved in applying any pressure on the Scottish regional authorities who ultimately held the responsibility for al-Megrahi's release.

"The deep-sea offshore exploration agreement between Libya and BP is very important to BP as it is one of its largest exploration commitments worldwide," a Libya expert who preferred to remain anonymous told Deutsche Welle. "BP is very involved in the Libyan oil industry through its exploration agreement."

"I expect that BP would have made every effort to get the UK government to facilitate the release of al-Megrahi and would have brought it up at every opportunity," the source added. "As far as exerting pressure, I am not sure BP is in a position to put pressure on the UK government. There would have been more pressure from the Libyan government on the UK government to obtain his release."

Dana Moss believes that Libya certainly uses its position as an oil and gas exporter to exert pressure in its foreign policy entanglements.

"The regime has changed its tactics away from terrorism, but Ghadafi continues to use blackmail and manipulation through Libya's hydrocarbon industry to further foreign policy aims," Moss said.

US critics call for new inquiry over alleged BP involvement

Cameron's statements and the findings of the report are unlikely to assuage politicians in the US who are furious over the bomber's release and who continue to call for an independent inquiry into the affair.

From left, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., and Sen, Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. take part in a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, July 14, 2010, to discuss asking the State Department to investigate whether oil giant BP played a role in winning last year's release of the man convicted of the Lockerbie airliner bombing.

Senators Gillibrand, Menendez, Lautenberg and Schumer

Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, who is leading the calls for a new investigation, told reporters that it "really stretches the imagination" to believe that there was no pressure from the British government or BP.

Menendez, a lawmaker who conducted his own investigation into the issue last year, pointed out that the O'Donnell report had been based on government documents and therefore "won't produce all of the facts and all of the truth."

"I have spent enough time in my own government to know that many conversations take place that are not memorialized" on paper, he said. "This is why we renew our call for an independent inquiry. It is important to get to the totality of the truth here."

Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg accused the British government of trying to "dodge responsibility" for the decision, claiming in a statement that "justice was traded for commercial interests."

This view was shared by Kirsten Gillibrand, another Democratic Senator, who called the O'Donnell report "deeply troubling" and warned "economic and trade interests should never take precedence over matters of justice."

"There is a chance that an independent inquiry will take place, driven by the United States," the anonymous source said. "But it is unlikely that any investigation will uncover anything new or anything which hasn't been included in the O'Donnell report."

Auhtor: Nick Amies
Editor: Rob Mudge

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