Wednesday, 16 December 2015

UK-Libya rapprochement following the Lockerbie trial

[What follows is excerpted from an article headlined Gaddafi, Britain, UK and US: A secret, special and very cosy relationship that was published in The Independent on Sunday on 4 September 2011. An important event in the post-Lockerbie rapprochement occurred on 16 December 2003:]

Most of the papers were found at the private offices of Moussa Koussa, the foreign minister, regime security chief and one of Gaddafi's chief lieutenants, on Friday afternoon. (...)

Mr Koussa, who defected after the February revolution and spent time in the UK, left to take up residence in the Gulf after demands that he face police questioning over the murder of Libyan opposition figures in exile, the Lockerbie bombing and the killing of the policewoman Yvonne Fletcher. In a sign of the importance of the British connection, MI6 merited two files in Mr Koussa's office, while the CIA had only one. UK intelligence agencies had played a leading role in bringing Gaddafi's regime in from the cold.

The documents reveal that British security agencies provided details about exiled opposition figures to the Libyans, including phone numbers. Among those targeted were Ismail Kamoka, freed by British judges in 2004 because he was not regarded as a threat to the UK's national security. MI6 even drafted a speech for Gaddafi when he was seeking rapprochement with the outside world with a covering note stressing that UK and Libyan officials must use "the same script". (...)

Britain's extraordinary rekindling of relations with Libya did not start as Mr Blair sipped tea in a Bedouin tent with Gaddafi, nor within the walls of the Travellers Club in Pall Mall – although this "summit of spies" in 2003 played a major role. It can be traced back to a 1999 meeting Mr Blair held with the man hailed as one of the greatest to have ever lived: Nelson Mandela, in South Africa.

Mr Mandela had long played a key role in negotiations between Gaddafi, whom he had hailed as a key opponent of apartheid, and the British government. Mr Mandela first lobbied Mr Blair over Libya in October 1997, at a Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Edinburgh. Mr Mandela was pressing for those accused of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing to be tried outside Scotland. In January 1999, Mr Mandela, during a visit by Mr Blair to South Africa, actively lobbied the PM on behalf of Gaddafi, over sanctions imposed on Libya and the Lockerbie suspects.

UN sanctions were suspended in April 1999 when Gaddafi handed over the two Lockerbie suspects, including Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, who was eventually convicted of the bombing. Libya also accepted "general responsibility" for the death of Yvonne Fletcher. Both moves allowed the Blair government to begin the long process of renewing ties with Libya.

Within a couple of years, the issue of persuading the Gaddafi regime to turn itself from pariah into international player surged to the forefront of the British government's agenda. It was during this time, according to the documents found in Mr Koussa's office, that MI6 and the CIA began actively engaging with Libyan intelligence chiefs. But it was a key meeting on 16 December 2003, at the Travellers Club, that would put the official UK – and US – stamp on Gaddafi's credibility. Present were Mr Koussa, then head of external intelligence for Libya, and two Libyan intelligence figures; Mr Blair's foreign affairs envoy, Sir Nigel Sheinwald, and three MI6 chiefs; and two CIA directors. Mr Koussa's attendance at the meeting in central London was extraordinary – at the time he had been banned from entering Britain after allegedly plotting to assassinate Libyan dissidents, and so was given safe passage by MI6.

Mr Koussa's pivotal role at the Travellers Club casts light on how, following his defection from Gaddafi's regime during the initial Nato bombing campaign earlier this year, he was able to slip quietly out of the country. Two days after the 2003 meeting, Mr Blair and Gaddafi held talks by telephone; and the next day, 19 December, the announcement about Libya surrendering its WMD was made by Mr Blair and President Bush.

In March 2004, Mr Blair first shook hands with Gaddafi in his Bedouin tent. The pair then met again in May 2007, shortly before Mr Blair left office.

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