Thursday, 8 January 2015

Nelson Mandela's forthrightness discomfits Tony Blair

[What follows is a report from The Associated Press news agency published on this date in 1999:]

Officials from South Africa and Saudi Arabia will fly to Libya to negotiate the surrender of two Libyan suspects in the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am jetliner, President Nelson Mandela said Thursday.

Mandela made the announcement at a joint news conference with visiting British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Both leaders expressed confidence that an impasse over bringing the two Libyans to trial in a third country could be broken.

The downing of the New York-bound airliner on Dec 21, 1988, over Lockerbie, Scotland, killed 270 people.

Blair had tried to limit his comments to generalities and grimaced when Mandela announced the pending mission.

He also became uncomfortable when Mandela criticized the Dec 16-19 US and British airstrikes against Iraq. Earlier Thursday, about 50 Muslims demonstrating against the attacks clashed with police in Cape Town, which Blair plans to visit Friday and Saturday.

Still, Blair was optimistic about the chances for the mission to Libya.

“There has been progress ... on an issue that some people thought was completely impractical,” Blair said. Britain sought a breakthrough, “out of a deep respect for the families of the Lockerbie victims and their desire for this trial to happen,” he said.

Mandela said Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, and the director-general of Mandela's office, Jakes Gerwel, would fly to Libya in the next few days for talks with Libyan officials.

He said the UN Security Council had agreed to temporarily lift its air embargo of Libya to allow the two officials to fly to the Libyan capital of Tripoli. [RB: Largely through the influence of President Mandela, UK and US opposition to this mission at the United Nations was overcome.]

Mandela has already played a key role in convincing the United States and Britain to support a neutral venue for the trial and has relayed the proposal to Libyan leader Col Moammar Gadhafi, with whom Mandela maintains close ties.

Libya has agreed in principle to let the two stand trial in the Netherlands before a panel of Scottish judges. But the Libyan government demands that they be jailed in Libya if they are convicted.

In Tripoli, an unidentified Libyan Foreign Ministry official said Thursday that his government was still waiting for more information.

“(The United States and Britain) have to answer especially the points on the venue of imprisonment and the lifting of the sanctions,” the Libyan official said, according to a report by Egypt's official Middle East News Agency.

US and British diplomats have said that, if convicted, the suspects would serve their sentences in a British prison and that sanctions would be suspended after the handover.

Earlier Thursday, Blair lashed out at Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, calling him “a threat.”

Mandela noted later that “the charter of the United Nations provides that member nations should seek to settle their problems through peaceful means.”

“Tony here and Bill Clinton, I have no doubt, respect that,” Mandela said.

Blair stiffened at the comment and told reporters: “I have absolutely nothing to add to what I said this morning on that.”

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