West rebuffs Arab demands for full pardon for Libya

TRIPOLI, Reuters

The wounds left by the Lockerbie bombing looked as raw as ever on Thursday as a convicted killer planned his appeal, Arabs demanded sanctions on Libya be lifted and the West insisted Tripoli had not yet earned a full pardon.

Fuelled by suspicion that responsibility for 270 murders in the destruction of Pan Am Flight 103 lies at the heart of Muammar Gadhafi’s state, the United States and Britain said Libya had yet to accept responsibility for the 1988 bombing and pay compensation.

Libyan secret agent Abdel Basset al-Megrahi faced the prospect of at least 20 years in a Scottish prison for the airliner attack, after his conviction at a court in the Netherlands on Wednesday. Libyan television said he would lodge an appeal within 14 days.

His acquitted co-accused Al-Amin Khalifa Fahima was flying back from the Netherlands to Tripoli, where demonstrators chanted “down, down U.S.A.” in the streets in protest against Megrahi’s conviction.

Libya denied Megrahi had acted on the orders of the Libyan state and said the verdict meant it was time for the full lifting of sanctions, a demand echoed by the 22-member state Arab league.

Sanctions have been suspended since Libya handed over the two bombing suspects in April 1999, and to impose them again would take another vote in the U.N. Security Council, which would probably fail. But Libya says it wants its name cleared.

Libyan Foreign Minister Abdel Rahman Shalgam said Libya wished “to turn a new page in its relations with the U.K. and the U.S. and establish new relations based on respect for its sovereignty and independence”.

But “we will not give in to blackmail”, he added in a statement.

The minister said “talk about compensating the victims should not benefit one side and not the other” adding that Libya was “also a victim of state terrorism”.

“The Anglo-American air raids in 1986 need no proof or trial,” he added.

U.S. warplanes bombed Libya in February 1986 in reprisal for the lethal bombing by alleged Libyan agents of a Berlin discotheque favored by American troops.

A daughter of the Libyan leader Gadhafi was killed in one of the air strikes.

Asked earlier by the BBC if Libya would accept responsibility for the Lockerbie attack, Shalgam replied: “Never”.

Libyan newspapers on Thursday reported the Lockerbie verdict without comment. But many ordinary Libyans expressed disappointment over the outcome of the nine-month trial.

“We really expected a non-guilty verdict to clear our country’s image of allegations associating it with terrorism,” said Munira Saadane, a 21-year-old foreign language student.

Libya’s ambassador to Britain did not rule out the possibility of paying compensation to victims’ relatives once Megrahi’s appeal process had run its course.

“After the appeal result, in that time we can speak about compensation and we will fulfill our duty as we said before to the Security Council,” Ambassador Mohammed al-Zwai told BBC Radio. “But we still think not now.”

A special cell — dubbed by other inmates “Gadhafi’s Cafe” — has been prepared for Megrahi, 49, at Glasgow’s tough Barlinnie prison, should his appeal fail.

In the meantime he remains in the specially built prison at Camp Zeist in the Netherlands, where he and Fahima had been held since Tripoli handed them over for trial under Scottish law at the former U.S. military base.

An official source said Megrahi’s mother had been taken to a Tripoli hospital after collapsing on the news of her son’s sentence.

In Washington, President George W. Bush praised the conviction and said the Libyan government must take responsibility for the attack. After less than two weeks in office, the Bush administration faces a major foreign policy decision on how hard to squeeze Tripoli.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher laid down four demands with which the United States said Libya must comply.