Working to close the books on the Lockerbie case, the Bush administration is nearing an agreement that could lead to the re-establishment of relations with Libya, one of America’s most implacable enemies during the 1980s.
American officials are slated to meet in London with Libyan and British envoys in coming weeks to iron out the remaining differences over the Lockerbie dispute. In October American and Libyan lawyers reached a tentative $2.7 billion agreement to compensate the families of the victims of the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. But Libya must still accept responsibility for the attack, which killed 270 persons, in order for United Nations and eventually American sanctions to be removed.
The three sides have met several times during the last year to craft a Libyan declaration accepting responsibility; observers say the next meeting could be the decisive one.
“I really think that we are very, very close,” said a former senior American diplomat who is monitoring the talks. “This will be a high-level meeting, so they wouldn’t bother if it wasn’t important.”
At the same time, Libya’s mercurial strongman, Muammar Gadhafi, has launched a charm offensive in the American media. In interviews last week with several major American publications, Gadhafi tried to showcase his evolution from a firebrand revolutionary supporting terrorists to a responsible leader fighting Islamic terrorism alongside Washington.
The assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, William Burns, is expected to head the American delegation and meet with top British and Libyan officials in London. While Burns attended similar meetings last year, the last one took place last summer, leading observers to say his participation this time suggests substantive progress has been made recently.
Jim Smith, a spokesman for the State Department’s Near East affairs bureau, said “nothing was scheduled.”
But Mark Matthews, a spokesman for the Foreign Office in London, confirmed that another meeting was being planned for within a month. While acknowledging that progress had been made in the previous talks, he warned, “we might not be there yet.”
In the meantime, American and Libyan lawyers have hatched a tentative $2.7 billion financial settlement to compensate the families of the victims. The deal has been approved by 262 of the 267 families and presented to a New York judge, according to Jim Kreindler, the lead lawyer for the victims’ families.
“We’re just waiting for Libya to acknowledge responsibility to get this started,” he said. “I think Libya wants to settle and that it will happen.”
The agreement states that once Libya accepts responsibility, it will place $2.7 billion — or $10 million per family — in an escrow account. Forty percent of the money will be disbursed when the U.N. sanctions are lifted, another 40% when American sanctions are lifted and the remaining 20% when Libya is taken off the State Department’s terrorist list. If, however, within a year only the U.N. sanctions are lifted, Libya will pay an additional 10% to the families and keep the remaining 50%.
The difficulty with the required statement acknowledging Libya’s responsibility lies in the fact that Washington and London want a clear acknowledgement, while Tripoli insists on a vague one that would prevent further lawsuits against Libya’s leaders.
“Gadhafi does not want to see a Pinochet-like drama on this,” said Daniel Cohen, who lost his daughter Theodora in the bombing, in reference to the former Chilean military ruler who was arrested in England at the request of a Spanish judge for abuses committed by his regime. “He doesn’t want to be handcuffed the next time he travels to Geneva.”
A U.N. trade embargo was imposed on Libya in 1992 to force the surrender of two agents suspected of carrying out the Lockerbie bombing. The sanctions were suspended in 1999 after Libya agreed to hand them over to a tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands. In January 2001, the tribunal convicted one of the two Libyan agents and acquitted the other, a verdict that was affirmed last March.
Observers say that lifting the U.N. sanctions should only be a formality once an agreement is reached between Washington, London and Tripoli.
The lifting of American sanctions, however, which were slapped on during the early 1980s following tensions between the Reagan administration and Gadhafi that culminated in the American bombing of Tripoli and Benghazi in 1986, seems more remote. Besides the Lockerbie settlement, the Bush administration recently has stepped up accusations that Libya is pursuing weapons of mass destruction.
A recent CIA assessment claims Libya is developing its nuclear infrastructure and is trying to obtain technical information on the development of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, from countries such as Russia. Efforts to acquire chemical and biological weapons are also underway, the CIA report said.
Moreover, after years of Israeli silence on Libya, Prime Minister Sharon warned several weeks ago that Libya, with the help of Iraq, would be the first Arab country to develop a nuclear weapon.
In interviews with Newsweek, The Washington Post and The New York Times Magazine, Gadhafi denied any efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction.
While insisting on the innocence of his agents in the Lockerbie bombing and denying an official agreement on a financial settlement, Gadhafi acknowledged that there were negotiations to “close the file once and for all” and said he was hopeful that the meeting in London would bear fruit.
He confirmed reports that Tripoli and Washington were exchanging intelligence information on the Al Qaeda terrorist network.
“Those interviews are linked to the Lockerbie talks,” Cohen said. “American journalists have been waiting for years to interview Gadhafi, so this is a campaign, very clearly.”
Washington, for its part, seems to want to move forward with the rapprochement without alienating family members such as Cohen. This week, the United States symbolically protested Libya’s election as chair of the annual meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Commission, a move that could help the administration counter accusations that it is being soft on Gadhafi.
In Geneva, the United States forced a rare vote for the election of the chair of the 53-nation Human Rights Commission after Libya was nominated by African countries, which hold the rotating chair this year. The commission usually names its chair by acclamation and it was the first time the selection by a regional grouping has been challenged.
In a secret ballot, 33 countries backed the Libyan ambassador, Najat Al-Hajjaji, as commission president. Three countries — the United States, Canada and Guatemala — voted against Libya. There were 17 abstentions.
Libya’s nomination has been known for months, however, and was opposed by the administration only timidly, said observers, who called this week’s move cosmetic.
“The U.S. can say to its domestic constituencies that it is not salivating in front of Libya,” the former senior American diplomat said.