U.N. Chief, Gadhafi Meet on Suspects
By Howard Schneider
At a news briefing in Tripoli, where he returned after meeting Gadhafi in a tent in the Libyan desert, the U.N. leader said he felt Libya was committed to resolving the dispute over the Lockerbie suspects.
"The talks have been fruitful and positive. And Libya has confirmed its seriousness and readiness to find a solution to the Lockerbie problem," Annan said in a statement reported by the Reuters news agency. "It will require some time but not an inordinate amount," he added.
However, it was unclear whether Annan was able, as he had hoped, to find that solution himself and overcome lingering Libyan concerns about how the two men will be treated, and where they would be imprisoned, if convicted.
[In Washington, David Leavy, spokesman for the National Security Council, said: "Libya's requirements for compliance are clear. Compliance means turning over the two suspects for trial. We are disappointed Libya is not in compliance. This has gone on too long."
[A British Foreign Office spokesman in London told Reuters: "We are waiting to hear a report from the U.N. secretary general before commenting." British officials said Foreign Secretary Robin Cook hoped to speak to Annan soon after his return from Libya.]
The meeting followed a long day of travel and waiting for Annan, who flew from Tunisia to Tripoli, then flew to the small coastal town of Sirte, 250 miles to the east. There he spent approximately 10 hours meeting with other Libyan officials while the official state news agency cast doubt on whether Gadhafi would be willing to see him.
Shortly after 8 p.m., however, Annan left in the company of Libyan field aides for a session with Gadhafi, Libya's main leader and the man who could resolve the 10-year-old dispute over the Lockerbie suspects.
Despite Annan's positive comments, there was no immediate indication about what will happen next in the international effort to bring the two bombing suspects to trial. However, as they entered the discussions with Gadhafi, U.N. officials held high hopes that Annan would strike an agreement.
"We don't have a formal program," said Annan's spokesman, Fred Eckhard, in a Friday night briefing with reporters. The secretary general's "hope continues to be that he can wrap this," Eckhard added.
If Annan succeeds in securing an agreement for the trial of the two men, it will help end a dispute that contributed to Libya's image as a state that endorsed terrorism, left the country isolated under a U.N. trade and travel embargo and frustrated the families of the 270 people killed in the midair explosion.
The bomb on the Boeing 747 airliner, packed with holiday travelers bound from Frankfurt and London to New York, exploded on Dec. 21, 1988, killing all 259 people on board, most of them Americans, and 11 on the ground. Since then, Libya's suspected links to the incident have strained relations with the United States, which considered the bombing to be retaliation for an earlier U.S. air attack against sites in Libya.
The United States contends that the chief suspects, Abdel Basset Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah, were working for Libyan intelligence when they planted the bomb in a piece of luggage. In response to Libya's refusal to turn them over for trial, the United Nations placed an embargo on the oil-rich North African nation six years ago. The embargo is scheduled to be lifted as soon as the suspects are released for trial.
Gadhafi contended that the two men would not be given a fair trial in Scotland because of the high profile and emotional nature of the case, and said he would only release them if they are tried in a neutral country.
In August, London and Washington agreed, proposing that the trial could take place in the Netherlands, provided that it be presided over by a Scottish judge, under the auspices of Scottish law, a position that put the onus back on Gadhafi to respond.
Although Gadhafi accepted, he also demanded that the men, if found guilty, serve their sentences in either Libya or the Netherlands -- a condition unacceptable to the United States and Britain.
With an agreement close, but with no guarantee that the volatile issue would be resolved, Annan decided to make a day-long detour from a mission to Tunisia to see if he could put the matter to rest.
U.N. and Libyan lawyers have been in intense consultations recently to work out details of a possible transfer of the two men to their trial site, and to discuss lingering Libyan concerns over issues such as the place of imprisonment and guarantees that the two men would be treated fairly during the trial.
Earlier today, Libyan state radio reported that the country's General People's Congress had been called into session for Tuesday. The group ratifies Gadhafi's decisions, and would presumably formally endorse any agreement he reaches with Annan over the release of the prisoners.
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