[What follows is the text of a Reuters news agency report issued on 4 December 1998:]
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan prepared Friday to fly to Libya to meet Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and try to set in train the trial of two Libyan suspects in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing.
“I will leave Saturday morning for Libya for discussions with Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. I am going to try to settle this problem once and for all,” Annan told reporters after meeting Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali Thursday. News of the trip brought optimism from the United States and Britain, although what diplomats saw as Gaddafi's unpredictably tempered this with caution. A senior US official said Washington hoped the meetings would result in the handover of the two suspects.
But Ambassador Nancy Soderberg, speaking for the US mission to the United Nations, said she did not know what the outcome of Annan's session with Gaddafi would be and how firm his assurances were from Tripoli. “We would expect a meeting between the secretary-general and Libyan officials to produce a handover of the suspects,” Soderberg said. “We expect that to be the purpose of his travel to Libya.”
Annan is due to fly to Sirte, a coastal city 400 km (250 miles) east of the Libyan capital, where Gaddafi usually entertains his guests, after the Security Council sanctions committee approved a waiver for the trip, diplomats said. Britain welcomed Annan's announcement that he would visit Libya. But it made clear that a US-British plan to try the Libyan suspects before a special court of Scottish judges in the Netherlands was non-negotiable.
“Naturally we welcome efforts to implement the UN Security Council resolution (on handing over the suspects). We hope the secretary-general can persuade Gaddafi to reply promptly so justice can be done,” said a British Foreign Office spokesman. “Kofi Annan fully recognizes that the US-British plan is non-negotiable...the best we can hope for from Saturday's meeting is official notification that Gaddafi is prepared to hand over the suspects.”
Western diplomats had said Annan would not go to Libya unless he had been assured Gaddafi had agreed to surrender the suspects for trial. But in private, British officials are reluctant to express optimism about Annan's chances of success. “It is no use trying to figure out what could happen. It is very hard to predict what Gaddafi might do,” one said.
Asked if a deal on the surrender of the two suspects was ready, a diplomat told Reuters: “This is what he hopes to get. He (Annan) appears optimistic.” Diplomats said that chances had improved after weeks of talks with Libyan lawyers on the surrender of the two suspects. “It's not a done deal yet, but it's close,” said one diplomat who declined to be identified.
A Libyan statement denied any about-turn by Gaddafi. “Libya has already announced its acceptance of putting its two nationals on trial at a court in the Netherlands. It has expressed its willingness to enter into negotiations with the concerned parties either directly or through the UN secretary-general over arrangements for this trial,” said the statement carried by the official JANA news agency on Thursday. It said Libya would seek “the necessary guarantees for the Libyan suspects and reserved its right to ask for any clarification.”
[A related BBC News report can be read here.]