The beleaguered leader of Britain's striking mine workers, Arthur Scargill, became embroiled in fresh controversy today after it was disclosed that he had met with Libyan representatives in Paris three weeks ago and that a top union executive had met with Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi in Tripoli.
Scargill, in interviews today, said both he and his union's chief executive, Roger Windsor, had gone to the meetings at the invitation of trade unionists in Libya rather than at that of the government. He said his union had neither asked for nor received any funds from the Libyans to help striking miners here.
But the disclosure of the visits, which apparently were unknown to much of the mine union's executive committee, brought immediate condemnation from political leaders, a number of local mine union leaders and the Trades Union Congress, the national umbrella grouping of British unions.
Ties between Britain and Libya have been severely strained since April, when a British policewoman was shot by a gunman inside the Libyan People's Bureau, or embassy, here. The British government expelled all Libyan representatives and issued harsh condemnations of Libyan support of international terrorism.
The trips by Scargill and Windsor could lead to a rift in the trade union movement and possibly serve to isolate Scargill from the rest of the union leadership and the 130,000 miners who are now in the eighth month of a strike. The mine workers are protesting plans to close 20 of Britain's 175 coal pits that the National Coal Board says are no longer economically workable.
They also could erode what public support there is for the strikers. The disclosure today came less than a week after the leaders of another mine union, involving 17,000 pit deputies responsible for safety at mines, voted to call off a threatened strike that would have closed those mines where 50,000 British miners continue to work.
Scargill sharply attacked what he called the "furor" over the contacts tonight. He also condemned those who were trying to associate him with the Libyan regime. He told a television interviewer to "stop trying to put words into my mouth and to associate me with a system that I personally have not supported or made any comment about."
Under questioning, however, Scargill said "as far as we are concerned, if trade unionists anywhere in the world wish to support the fight of the British miners to stop pit closures and save jobs, we would welcome that support."
Opposition Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock said that any funds offered to the miners from Libya must be rejected. He called it a "vile insult" to receive funds associated with that government. David Steel, the leader of the smaller opposition Liberal Party, said Scargill's activities exposed the miners' strike as political rather than industrial.
The Libyan Scargill met in Paris was Salem Ibrahim, reportedly a confidant of Qaddafi. Scargill said that he and Windsor went to Paris to arrange aid from French miners and to meet with other trade unionists from Hungary, Libya and the Soviet Union. He said that his union has been invited to make its case to trade unionists from more than 50 countries and that he saw nothing wrong with that.
He said that he and Windsor traveled under false names to escape media attention and that the Libyans had paid for Windsor's trip.
The disclosures today were banner headlines in some of Britain's Sunday papers and dominated the news all day.
The Libyan news agency, Jana, issued a story Friday about Windsor's meeting with Qaddafi. In that story, Qaddafi expressed sympathy and solidarity with Britain's striking miners.