Libya Sends Letter to Pan Am 103 Families

By Thomas W. Lippman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 7 1997; Page A19

Libya has tried a surprising new tack in its long-running effort to escape U.N. economic sanctions imposed over the Pan Am 103 bombing in 1988: a direct appeal to families of the victims.

In a letter sent this week from its United Nations mission in New York, Libya declared itself "ready to enter into serious negotiations as of this moment, regarding the procedures leading to a trial" of two Libyan intelligence agents indicted here on charges of planning and carrying out the bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland.

That explosion killed 259 people on the plane and 11 on the ground. The letter drew a strongly negative response from the Clinton administration and family members who reported receiving it.

"It's basically the same old [expletive]," said an administration official who follows Pan Am 103 developments. "There's just a new level of audacity in that [Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi] sent this to the families. The things he's advocating are things he has pushed for a long time and we have rejected. I think we will continue to reject them."

"It's unnerving and it's outrageous," said Rosemary Wolfe, head of one group of victims' families. "What incredible nerve, to send this to the families. It is just a propaganda ploy."

Two Libyan intelligence operatives, Abdel Basset Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah, were indicted in 1991 and have long been on the FBI's "Most Wanted" list. The FBI has also offered a reward of up to $4 million for information that would lead to their arrest. But the two are believed to be in Libya, which has steadfastly refused to turn them over to U.S. or British authorities.

Chafing under U.N. sanctions that have cut off international air travel and restricted supplies for its oil industry, Libya has tried one legal maneuver after another in a quest for a formula that would get the sanctions lifted without delivering the two to Washington or London. One proposal called for Britain and the United States to send judges to monitor a trial in Libya; another called for holding a trial in a "neutral country."

In its letter this week, Libya charged that "all these efforts have not produced any results, apparently because the government of the United States is neither interested in the incident nor does it care about the victims."

As a result, the letter said, "almost 10 years have been wasted since the incident without making any serious progress toward finding a solution to this case and identifying the real perpetrators."

It offered to "guarantee our full and immediate cooperation with the United States and the United Kingdom" if they would accept any of Libya's previous offers, or do as the French did in an unrelated airliner bombing by sending investigators to Libya to discuss the case with Libyan authorities.

The letter bore the seal of Libya's U.N. mission but was unsigned. A diplomat at the mission, Ramadan Barg, said his government was "just trying to get the facts through, that's all. Our expectation is that the families of the victims will be made aware of what we have done."

The Libyan maneuver seemed particularly cynical, officials and family members said, because the recipients of the letter have no authority to negotiate. The two Libyan operatives are under federal indictment and only the Justice Department has legal authority in the case.

Last month Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and 53 colleagues wrote to U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson asking him to seek an international oil embargo against Libya, a step the United Nations has declined to take.

Kennedy also received a copy of the letter but "was unimpressed," an aide said. "He considers this a stalling tactic. The Libyans know what they have to do" to escape the U.N. sanctions.

Gadhafi recently defied the existing U.N. ban on air travel to or from Libya by flying to Niger and Nigeria. Some Pan Am 103 families said that what they viewed as a tepid international response to that provocation has emboldened the Libyans and prompted them to send their letter.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company