Friday, July 13, 2007

US Democrats oppose Libya relations

At least four Democrat senators including Hillary Clinton have threatened to block the appointment of the US’s first ambassador to Libya in 35 years. George W Bush nominated Gene Cretz to fill the vacant role on Wednesday. However Senate Democrats led by Frank Lautenberg (NJ) said no American ambassador should set foot in Tripoli until Libya fulfilled the financial commitments made to the Lockerbie victims' families. Lautenberg and Clinton’s move has been supported by Robert Menendez (NJ) and Charles Schumer (NY). “The US must not pursue fully normalised diplomatic relations with Libya until they fulfil their legal obligations to American families” said Lautenberg yesterday.

Gene Cretz is a possibly provocative choice of ambassador. Cretz is Jewish and currently based in Israel as the deputy chef de mission. He has often been the top US representative in Israel at Jewish memorial services, offering prayers in Hebrew. He spoke at the September 2005 funeral for Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal. Cretz is a veteran diplomat who has served at the US embassy in several Arab countries. Prior to serving in Israel, Cretz was the charge d'affaires at the US Embassy in Syria and has also served in Egypt.

However the appointment needs to be confirmed by the Senate and the four Democrats are leading the arguments to push the White House to make Libya do more to account for Lockerbie and the 1986 Berlin disco bombing that killed two US servicemen. The senators want Libya to pay $2.7 billion compensation stipulated in a 2006 agreement with the families of the 270 Lockerbie victims. "A promise made must be a promise kept," said Senator Menendez. "Libya has not made good on its promise to the victims of Pan Am Flight 103, and it must be held responsible."

The US had not had formal diplomat relations with Tripoli since 1980 and Libya was regarded as a pariah state until 2004. The US imposed a trade embargo in 1986 after a period of tension that ended in American air strikes against major targets in the capital, Tripoli, and elsewhere. In 2004 Britain facilitated a thaw in hostilities which enabled Washington to open a diplomatic office in the country. In May 2006 the Bush administration announced it was resuming regular diplomatic relations when it removed removing Gaddafy’s regime from a list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Not everyone in the US was happy with the decision. When Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte planned a visit to Libya to discuss Darfur, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton urged him to use the visit to tell Gaddafy to settle the remaining terrorism cases against his country before the US fully normalise diplomatic relations. Clinton quoted 1985 Egypt Air Flight 648 and the 1985 Rome Airport attack, the reneging of a proposed settlement with the victims of the 1986 bombing of the LaBelle discotheque in Berlin, and the fact they had not fully paid the Lockerbie families.

However new evidence has emerged that has cast doubt on the conviction of the Libyan convicted for the bombing. 55 year old Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi was a former Libyan intelligence officer and head of security for Libyan Arab Airlines who was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2001 on 270 counts of murder for his part in the bombing. The prosecution alleged al-Megrahi arranged for an unaccompanied case containing the bomb to travel on an Air Malta flight from the island's Luqa airport. But the Scottish Sunday Herald claims the airport's then head baggage loader told the Maltese police investigating the disaster that there were no unaccompanied items on the flight to Frankfurt.

The Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC) has now announced it has granted a fresh appeal into al-Megrahi’s conviction. The UN observer appointed to oversee the Lockerbie trial, Dr Hans Köchler, has called on First Minister Alex Salmond to agree to demands for an international inquiry into the handling of the case. In a letter to Salmond, Dr Köchler called for "a full and independent public inquiry of the Lockerbie case and its handling by the Scottish judiciary as well as the British and US political and intelligence establishments". Megrahi’s appeal will not be heard until later next year.

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