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EDITIONS
Sunday, 4 February, 2001, 17:18 GMT
Libya in ferment over Lockerbie
Freed Lockerbie suspect Al Amin Fhimah (left) with Muammar Gaddafi
Muammar Gaddafi: New "revelations" about Lockerbie
By diplomatic correspondent James Robbins in Tripoli

For me, a rollercoaster week which is ending here in Tripoli really started in a basement room at the Foreign Office in London.

Britain's diplomatic correspondents had been invited to a briefing on Monday, just ahead of the Lockerbie verdict - a briefing by some of the most senior and experienced officials who deal with the Libya question.

Somehow all of us journalists knew when one of those diplomats reached the critical passage of his presentation. It was an immaculately crafted and considered sentence encapsulating Britain's current approach to Libya, and its leader for more than 30 years - Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

Tripoli demonstration over Lockerbie verdict
Thousands of Libyans protested against the verdict

"If the verdict is guilty," said the specialist in Arab affairs, "that says something about the Libya of 1988 - but it's the Libya of 2001 with which we deal".

In other words, that was then, this is now. The past is another Libya - a Libya which was actively involved in terrorism. But the end of the trial should close the Lockerbie saga - Britain can move on and build stronger ties with Libya.

Dialogue

The Foreign Office makes clear that there are things to be done - conditions to be met before UN sanctions can finally be lifted.

Britain will remain vigilant, suspicious even, but through dialogue it hopes to persuade Libya to complete a long, hesistant journey away from active terrorism to become a normal state.

So if Britain deals with the Libya of 2001, what sort of country is it?

I was about to get a taste on my first visit here, flying down on Wednesday - the very morning the Lockerbie verdict was announced by the Scottish judges.

Abdelbasset al Megrahi
Abdelbasset al Megrahi: Libya says he is innocent

It was not my choice, by the way. I would rather have come days earlier. But then simply getting here is never easy.

"Everything about Libya is a drama," one of my journalist friends had warned me.

"Getting the visa is a drama. Once you're in, dealing with the government minders who linger in the hotel lobby to stop you going outside with a camera - that's a drama."

And so it turned out. Yet the slow thaw is also clear to see.

Diplomatic thaw

A week before the Lockerbie verdict, I went to Libya's embassy in London to find out how my visa application was getting on. Only it's not called an embassy, of course. It's the People's Bureau of The Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.

Well, inside they were all a-twitter. There were meetings at Buckingham Palace to go to, details of the carriage procession to be worked out. Libya's new ambassador will soon be getting the full ceremonial welcome from Queen Elizabeth II given to every envoy newly arrived in London.

Tripoli street scene
Libya's economy has suffered under sanctions

All this symbolised for Libya's charge d'affaires a bright new future. But no, he couldn't tell me if the BBC team would get permission to visit his country. That was a political decision to be taken in Tripoli.

At the very last minute, the decision was to let us in. Visas would be sorted out at Tripoli airport, I was assured. And so it was.

As we touched down here, Libya was already smarting at the news, not two hours old, that one of its citizens had been sentenced to life for blowing up a Pan Am 747 over Lockerbie, and murdering 270 people.

Great Leader

So, here at last, in Tripoli - and a particularly hectic few days trying to make sense of Libya's response, or rather responses.

The most important streets and squares are dominated by the all-seeing eyes of the Great Leader of the Revolution, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

But for the time being the man blamed by many for encouraging - perhaps even ordering - the Lockerbie bombing, was saying nothing.

We were largely cooped up in the hotel, while a procession of ministers and senior officials pitched up at odd intervals. Their message was part defiant, part conciliatory - but perhaps, on balance, conciliatory.

No, Libya would never accept responsibility for the actions of a single Libyan citizen. But yes, Libya might discuss compensation for the families if Abdelbasset al Megrahi's appeal against conviction fails.

Positive noises

Back in London, the new ambassador from Libya, getting ready for that trip to Buckingham Palace, was quite definite: compensation would be discussed.

UN sanctions
Embargo on commercial flights and some trade
Freezing of assets
Suspended April 1999
US sanctions
Ban on sale of oil-related equipment
Air and arms embargo

And why was Libya sounding positive? Well, for the same reasons that it handed over the two men for trial in the first place: because it does need to get back into the mainstream, to trade normally and recover from the real damage economic sanctions have caused.

Colonel Gaddafi has survived - just - for more than three decades.

Then, on Thursday, one of the world's greatest melodramatic actors took to the stage once again.

The colonel hugged Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah, the man set free by the Scottish judges, while soldiers in red berets slaughtered a tethered camel with a ceremonial sword to celebrate what is being called Libya's great victory over colonialism.

The colonel's words flowed freely, as he stood against his favourite backdrop - the ruins of Bab al Aziziya barracks, bombed by US warplanes in April 1986.

He denounced the Scottish judges, recommending to them suicide as an option. He charged the United States with secret pressure on them to convict, and told the world he would provide proof that the guilty verdict was wrong. Only we would all have to wait until Monday for his revelations.

I think most of us journalists were stunned. This wasn't the script Libya's ministers had led us to expect. But the man was clearly infuriated by the public statements of UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and, more particularly, US President George W Bush, and didn't see any reason to hold back.

Gaddafi's anger

So what impressions am I left with at the end of the week?

Well, a clear feeling that Colonel Gaddafi really wants to direct his anti-colonialist anger at Washington, not London. His denunciations of Britain are generally rather half-hearted asides.

Also I have a feeling that Libya simply doesn't like taking all the blame for Lockerbie, especially while there is such strong suspicion that other governments were involved.

Very few people claim the trial was any sort of method of getting at the whole truth about all the people involved in the bombing.

And I also feel that, however odd his way of showing it, Colonel Gaddafi may still be psyching himself up for a bit of a retreat.

But he would like to let off steam first, and indulge in a bit more allegation and denunciation, designed to cloud a past that is already quite murky.


Full verdicts
Lockerbie opinion posted by Scots Court Service
Lockerbie megapuff graphic

AUDIO VIDEO

Appeal concludes

Key stories

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The trial
See also:

04 Feb 01 | In Depth
02 Feb 01 | Middle East
02 Feb 01 | Middle East
01 Feb 01 | In Depth
01 Feb 01 | In Depth
01 Feb 01 | Americas
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