Libya Sets Date for Handing Over Suspects
By John M. Goshko
The news was greeted here as potentially the most positive development so far in a long effort to force Libya to give up the suspects. But there still was no guarantee that the Libyan leader, Moammar Gadhafi, will actually follow through.
Deals with Gadhafi have seemed close before, only to result in the Libyans backing away at the last minute, and U.N. sources cautioned that nothing will be certain until the two suspects are in custody and ready to be tried by a special Scottish court to be convened in the Netherlands.
Nevertheless, these sources and Libya's U.N. ambassador, Abuzed Omar Dorda, said in a letter delivered late today to Secretary General Kofi Annan that the Libyan government has for the first time committed to a specific date for surrendering the two intelligence agents to U.N. officials for transfer to the Netherlands.
Although the letter was not made public, the sources said it confirmed in writing the information announced in Tripoli, Libya's capital, by visiting South African President Nelson Mandela. If the Libyans keep their promise, the move would mark a big step forward in the 10-year campaign by the United States and Britain to bring the perpetrators to justice. It also would open the way for lifting the economic sanctions imposed on Libya by the U.N. Security Council in 1992 and 1993.
Annan, in a statement, said he was "greatly encouraged by this development" and added that "the necessary arrangements will now be initiated by the U.N. secretariat." In Washington, State Department spokesman James Foley said, "We welcome the news that we have heard from President Mandela," and he emphasized that the United States expects Libya to hand the two over "on or before April 6."
The two Libyan agents -- Abdel Basset Ali Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah -- have been indicted in the United States and Britain for the bombing that sent Pan Am Flight 103 plummeting to the ground in the Scottish hills. Most of those killed were Americans.
After Libya refused for years to extradite them to either country, Washington and London agreed last August to a Libyan proposal for a trial in the neutral venue of the Netherlands. However, despite the intercession of various leaders friendly to Libya, such as Mandela and Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, Gadhafi has resisted complying while his government insisted on clarifications of the U.S.-British offer.
These included, most recently, assurances that the United States and Britain do not have a hidden agenda that would involve seeking to reimpose the sanctions at a later date or would use a trial to wage a propaganda campaign against the Libyan government. In addition, the Libyans insisted that if the two are convicted and sentenced to terms in a Scottish prison, the United Nations would ensure that their religious and cultural rights would be safeguarded.
The U.N. sanctions, which include an air embargo and bans on the sale of weapons and some types of oil equipment, have caused considerable damage to the Libyan economy. On Feb. 26, the Security Council agreed to continue the sanctions in place. U.S. officials spoke of an informal 30-day deadline, hinting that if Libya did not act within that time, the United States might seek tougher steps.
American and British officials continued to be wary tonight, despite the encouraging news.
The acting U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, A. Peter Burleigh, said: "The key is turning over the two accused to the United Nations for transport to the Netherlands. . . . This is what is required by the [U.N.] resolution, and this is the one criteria about whether Libya has complied."
British officials echoed a statement made yesterday by Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, who said, "We will not drop our guard until the two men land in the Netherlands. I am not going to breath a sigh of relief until that happens."
Correspondent Howard Schneider in Cairo contributed to this report.
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