Libyan controversy adds to BP's woes

BP says a containment cap has stopped oil from flowing into the Gulf for the first time since April.
By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 16, 2010

BP faced a new outcry Thursday about whether the Scottish and British governments sought to smooth BP's oil exploration contract talks with Libya by releasing prisoners, including the man convicted of bombing the Pan Am plane that went down over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. The bombing killed 270 people, including 189 Americans.

With the approach of the first anniversary of the Lockerbie bomber's release from a Scottish prison, several factors are feeding the new uproar, including new assertions by BP and the British government. U.S. senators from New York and New Jersey urged the company to shelve plans to drill offshore from Libya and called on the British government to demand the return of the Lockerbie bomber.

"Both the British and United States have vowed to fight a war on terror, and if one of the worst terrorists in history, responsible for more deaths than all but a handful of people, can be released for a few coins, or pounds, what does it say to other terrorists?" said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). " 'Commit this kind of act and we'll take care of you, too.' "

Among the new highlights:

-- BP acknowledged Thursday that in 2007, it urged the British government to speed up a prisoner release because it was worried that a stalemate on that front would undercut an oil exploration deal with Libya. But the company denied that in 2009, when progress on the Libyan venture bogged down, it sought the specific release of the Lockerbie bomber, Libyan intelligence agent Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi.

"BP told the U.K. government that we were concerned about the slow progress that was being made in concluding a prisoner transfer agreement with Libya," BP said.

-- Karol Sikora, a British cancer expert who helped Megrahi qualify for a humanitarian release by saying that he had three months to live because of prostate cancer, acknowledges the error of that prediction. Nearly a year later, Megrahi is alive in Tripoli. Sikora had already said the Libyan government suggested the three-month prognosis.

-- The new British government also spoke up Thursday. The British ambassador in Washington, Nigel Sheinwald, issued a statement saying, "The new British Government is clear that Megrahi's release was a mistake." But he denied any link between the release and BP's oil negotiations, and he disputed reports that medical evaluations were paid for by Libya.

"Under UK law, where Scottish justice issues are devolved to Scotland, it fell solely to the Scottish Executive to consider Megrahi's case," Sheinwald said. "Under Scottish law, Megrahi was entitled to be considered for release on compassionate grounds."

A source familiar with BP negotiations at the time said BP kept the U.S. government informed of its discussions with Libya and the United Kingdom, including talks about prisoner releases. BP had also hired Mark Allen, a Middle East expert and veteran of Britain's MI6 intelligence agency, and other former British government experts to help talks with Libya.

"The Libya deal was done with the full blessing of the U.S. government," said the source, who sought anonymity to preserve his business relationships. "There was always a policy of no surprises with the U.S. government."

"We accepted at face value what Scottish authorities told us, that this was a humanitarian decision that they made based on the medical information that was available to them," State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley said Thursday. "We said categorically that this was a mistake, and that is still our view today. . . . We understand the outrage that the families of Pan Am 103 and their elected officials feel about this."

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