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Tuesday, 13 November, 2001, 22:48 GMT
Analysis: Disco bombing's Libya connection
Colonel Gaddafi
A Berlin court says Libyan agents planned the bomb
By Middle East analyst Dr Alan George

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was once reviled by the United States as much as Osama Bin Laden is today - and was the key target of an earlier US war against terrorism.

Portraying himself as a champion of "oppressed peoples", Gaddafi insisted he was the target of an aggressive US which could not tolerate Libya's uncompromising stance on Palestine, its support for Islamic revolutionary Iran in the 1980-88 Gulf war and its backing for "liberation movements" worldwide.

La Belle Disco
The bomb killed three people, including two US servicemen

US-Libyan relations soured quickly following Ronald Reagan's arrival in the White House in January 1981.

The Gulf of Sirte, which Libya had claimed since 1973 as sovereign territory, was a key arena for the conflict.

In March 1981, the US Sixth Fleet provocatively sailed into the Gulf but Libya refrained from responding. In August that year, however, the US fleet returned and shot down two Libyan warplanes which had been monitoring the vessels.


Trade sanctions were an important element in US strategy, with Libya's all-important oil industry as the main target.

In March 1982 Washington declared a ban on the import of Libyan crude oil and the export to Libya of US oil industry technology. It then tried - unsuccessfully - to persuade Europe to follow suit.

In 1984 the focus switched to the UK, one of the countries where Libyan hit squads had been targeting dissident exiles.

In April, a gunman inside Libya's People's Bureau, or embassy, in London opened fire on an anti-Gaddafi demonstration outside, killing a policewoman.

London severed relations and expelled the entire staff of the diplomatic mission.

PC Yvonne Fletcher
PC Yvonne Fletcher was killed outside the Libyan embassy

In December 1985, Palestinians from the Abu Nidal faction - which Libya supported - attacked check-in desks of Israel's El Al airline at Vienna and Rome airports.

In January the US declared a comprehensive trade embargo against Libya, ordering the withdrawal of all US companies and individuals.

Two months later, the Sixth Fleet sailed back into the Gulf of Sirte and attacked Libyan patrol boats and onshore anti-aircraft missile sites deemed a threat to the US forces.

The La Belle disco bombing in Berlin, in which two US servicemen died, was Libya's response.

In turn, the US killed 60 people in major bombing raids against Tripoli and Benghazi, using aircraft based in the UK. The targets included Colonel Gaddafi's residence in Tripoli.


Libya's answer was delayed but devastating. In December 1988 the bombing of a Pan-Am jumbo jet over the Scottish town of Lockerbie killed 270 people.

Two Libyans were named as suspects and in 1992 and 1993 the UN imposed diplomatic and other sanctions in an ultimately successful effort to persuade Gaddafi to surrender them for trial.

Last January a specially-convened court in the Netherlands found one of them guilty. He is appealing.

The Lockerbie crash scene
Pan Am flight 103 crashed in Lockerbie in 1988, killing 270 people
If Gaddafi has mellowed, it is not because of the sustained Western campaign against him. Far more important was the collapse of the East Block in the late 1980s, which deprived him of key backers, and the as yet abortive Palestinian-Israeli peace process which left Libya even further in the Arab political wilderness.

In the 1990s, meanwhile, Libya was on the defensive over Lockerbie, and preoccupied with a campaign to protest its innocence.

Gaddafi's priority now is to win Libya's readmission to the international community after the decades of isolation.

The verdicts in the La Belle and Lockerbie trials could prove major obstacles - especially with Washington engaged in a new war on terrorism and with US hardliners asserting that, after Afghanistan and Bin Laden, the campaign should be widened to other "terrorist" states - including Libya.

See also:

15 Oct 01 | World
Date set for Lockerbie appeal
02 Feb 01 | Middle East
Analysis: Gaddafi keeps West guessing
11 Dec 99 | Middle East
Libya seeks new beginning
18 Dec 99 | From Our Own Correspondent
Libya comes in from the cold
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