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Last Updated: Tuesday, 24 February, 2004, 22:48 GMT
Libya: covering a retreat
By Paul Reynolds
BBC News Online world affairs correspondent

Libyan PM Shukri Ghanem
Mr Ghanem contradicted earlier Libyan statements
The comments by the Libyan Prime Minister Shukri Ghanem are seen in diplomatic circles as a way for Libya to cover its retreat on a range of polices.

A Foreign Office spokesman in London told BBC News Online: "What is important is not what Libya says but what Libya does."

Libya had accepted responsibility for Lockerbie, he said, and for the Yvonne Fletcher murder for which it had paid her family compensation.

It was also dismantling its weapons of mass destruction programmes.

The US government took a sterner view, however, indicating that Mr Ghanem had underestimated the effect of his remarks. The State Department demanded retraction of the statement and stopped the lifting of a ban on flights to Libya.

The remarks are also an embarrassment for the British government which is preparing for a possible visit by Tony Blair to Libya later this year.

We thought it was easier for us to buy peace
Libyan PM Shukri Ghanem
This is especially true over the issue of police constable Yvonne Fletcher who was shot dead outside the Libyan embassy in 1984.

Mr Ghanem's statement that this was "settled" contradicts his foreign minister's assurance in London that "enhanced co-operation" in an investigation would be forthcoming.

This is an issue with plenty of domestic pitfalls for Mr Blair and it will have to be resolved before any visit.

The British government is likely to discount Mr Ghanem's remarks and place more faith in the word of Foreign Minister Abdul Rahman Shalgam - speaking, he said, on Colonel Gaddafi's behalf - who promised co-operation in the Yvonne Fletcher case.

In the British view, this means allowing a team from the Metropolitan police to go to Libya to interview diplomats who were in the embassy at the time.

Evasive denials

Overall, however, Mr Ghanem's remarks are very much in line with Libya's previous tactics of putting up a smokescreen to hide the fundamental changes in its position.

This would be easily understood by Libya's friends. His words even echo the words of Colonel Gaddafi himself last summer when Libya finally agreed on compensation for the Lockerbie attack.

For example, Mr Ghanem said of Libya's decision to pay compensation for Lockerbie: "We thought it easier for us to buy peace and that is why we agreed to compensation."

The Libyan leader also declared that Libya had bought its way out of trouble.

"God curse money. What is money for? With money we defend our country," he said at the time.

The denials uttered by Mr Ghanem are in any case very evasive ones.

Libya is already on record in a letter to the Security Council last August, saying that it "accepts responsibility for the actions of its officials" over Lockerbie, so even the prime minister's denials of responsibility in his BBC interview cannot be taken at face value.

WMD dismantling

This explains why the British and US governments, in all their dealings with Libya, have laid such emphasis on deeds, not on words, though words have had their place.

And the most important thing that Libya is doing right now is co-operating in the dismantling of its weapons of mass destruction programmes.

It was its change of policy on WMD which led to Mr Blair's decision to accept in principle an invitation to visit Libya.

The head of the UN nuclear agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei has said that the work on Libya's WMD should be finished by June.

That should indicate when a visit by the British prime minister might be possible.

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