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August 31, 2009

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Bomber released as oil deal stalled

THE British government allowed the Lockerbie bomber to be covered by a prisoner transfer agreement with Libya because that was in the "overwhelming interests of the United Kingdom" as a major oil deal was being negotiated, a newspaper reported yesterday.

The Sunday Times, citing leaked correspondence between Justice Secretary Jack Straw and his Scottish counterpart Kenny MacAskill, said the decision was made as "wider negotiations" with the government of Libya continued.

Abdel Baset al-Megrahi's request to serve out his life sentence in Libya was later denied by MacAskill, but he released the Libyan on compassionate grounds because he is terminally ill. Al-Megrahi returned to Libya earlier this month.

The Sunday Times reported that Straw had originally tried to keep al-Megrahi, the only person convicted of the attack on Pan Am Flight 103, from being included in the agreement.

But five months later, the newspaper said, as a multibillion-dollar deal between oil company BP and Libya stalled, Straw wrote to Mac-Askill to say that there would be no exceptions.

"The wider negotiations with the Libyans are reaching a critical stage and, in the view of the overwhelming interests for the United Kingdom, I have agreed that in this instance (the prisoner transfer agreement) should be in the standard form and not mention any individual," the paper quoted Straw as writing in December 2007. It said the oil deal was ratified six weeks later.

In a statement yesterday, Straw said it had always been made clear during negotiations with the Libyans that Scotland would have a right to veto any application under a prisoner transfer agreement - including that of al-Megrahi.

"The negotiations over a prisoner transfer agreement were part of a wider agreement for the normalization of relations with Libya as part of bringing them into the international community," Straw said, adding that the agreement's terms were "academic," as al-Megrahi was released on compassionate grounds rather than under the prisoner transfer agreement.

The statement did not comment on the authenticity of the letters published by the Sunday Times.

According to the Economist magazine, Britain has significant economic interests in Libya. Last year, British imports topped 1 billion pounds (US$1.6 billion), and this year both imports and exports have been rising steadily.

The decision to release al-Megrahi sparked outrage in the United States, where most of the 270 people killed in the December 1988 attack lived. Both US President Barack Obama and FBI director Robert Mueller criticized the move, and scenes of jubilation in Libya at al-Megrahi's arrival were condemned on both sides of the Atlantic.

US families had also opposed any move to allow al-Megrahi to serve his sentence in Libya.

The British government has insisted it had no role in the decision to send al-Megrahi back to Libya. Scotland has wide autonomy over internal affairs, although London is still responsible for foreign affairs and defense.


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