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    Libya Accepts Proposed Pan Am Trial

    By Thomas W. Lippman and John M. Goshko
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Thursday, August 27 1998; Page A23

    Libya announced its acceptance yesterday of a plan by the United States and Britain to put two suspects in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 on trial in the Netherlands.

    If carried out, the decision by the Libyan government of Moammar Gadhafi would end a seven-year stalemate over the fate of two senior Libyan intelligence agents indicted in this country and Britain, and result in the suspension of economic sanctions imposed on Libya by the U.N. Security Council.

    The Libyans said nothing about when or how the two suspects might be sent to the Netherlands, and some officials and members of victims' families said they will believe it when they see it. It is not even clear that Libyan authorities have custody of the two men, identified in the 1991 indictments as Lamen Khalifa Fhimah and Abdel Basset Megrahi.

    The Clinton administration's initial response was skeptical because the Libyans have maneuvered for years to avoid delivering the suspects and ambiguous language in the Libyan statement yesterday could be read as raising new conditions.

    "The Libyan statement falls short of what U.N. Security Council resolutions require," State Department spokesman James Foley told reporters.

    "If the Libyans are serious, we would expect the next step to be the [U.N.] secretary general's notification that the suspects have been transported from Libya to the Netherlands and are in custody," he added.

    "I welcome this statement, which looks like a positive development," British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said in a statement. But he, too, added a note of caution: "We shall need to study exactly what the Libyans have said and to ensure that they are not setting any conditions on their acceptance."

    But indications last night were that the Libyans are prepared to go ahead. The U.S.-British plan is almost identical to one that the Libyans themselves offered in 1994, and has been endorsed by the Arab League and other international organizations. Arab League Secretary General Esmat Abdel Meguid said Tuesday that he expects Libya to accept.

    According to news reports from Cairo, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had sent a senior aide to Tripoli yesterday to urge Libya to accept the proposal. The Egyptians have been trying for some time to broker an end to the stalemate, which has made an international pariah out of their neighbor to the west.

    Pan Am Flight 103, a Boeing 747, was blown out of the sky over Lockerbie, Scotland, on Dec. 21, 1988. The explosion and crash killed all 259 people on the plane and 11 on the ground. Initial suspicion focused on Iran and Syria, but after an exhaustive investigation of physical evidence recovered at the site, the United States and Britain blamed Libya and indicted the two suspects.

    Libya refused to extradite them, saying they could not get a fair trial in the United States or Britain. In an effort to force compliance, the U.N. Security Council imposed economic sanctions, including a ban on international air travel to or from Libya and a ban on the sale of oil drilling equipment.

    But the Security Council stopped short of prohibiting the export of crude oil, the mainstay of the Libyan economy. In announcing the third-country trial plan on Monday, U.S. and British officials said that if Gadhafi rejects it, they will have new ammunition to use in pressing the Security Council for a crude oil export ban.

    In a statement issued by the Libyan Foreign Ministry and distributed by Libya's United Nations delegation, the Libyans said they agreed to the proposal put forward earlier this week by Washington and London, which calls for the suspects to be delivered to Scottish custody.

    Most of the statement is devoted to blaming the United States and Britain for the long delay in putting the two suspects on trial. It said Libya wants "to remind [the world] of the human and material losses the Libyan Arab people have suffered unjustly due to the sanctions . . . as a result of the non-response by the two governments to positive initiatives" presented in the past.

    The United States and Britain insisted for years that Libya had no alternative but to make the suspects available for trial in the United States or Scotland, which is part of the United Kingdom but has a separate legal system. They said accused terrorists and murderers could not be allowed to negotiate the terms on which they would face justice.

    But as the years dragged on with no sign of a breakthrough and as evidence began to grow old, the two countries decided to take Gadhafi at his word and set up a tribunal in the Netherlands, staffed by Scottish prosecutors and judges and conducted under Scottish law and procedures. The intent, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright said, was to call Gadhafi's bluff.

    The Libyan announcement came as the Security Council was considering a resolution that would endorse the U.S.-British plan. The resolution would suspend the U.N. sanctions against Libya as soon as the accused pair arrives in the Netherlands for trial.

    Lippman reported from Washington and Goshko from the United Nations.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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