Ahead of US visit, UK’s Cameron says decision to release Lockerbie bomber was wrong

By By David Stringer, AP
Monday, July 19, 2010

UK’s Cameron: releasing Lockerbie bomber was wrong

LONDON — Britain’s prime minister criticized the decision to free Lockerbie bomber Abdel Baset al-Megrahi from jail last year, saying Monday that the move had been “completely and utterly wrong.”

But while David Cameron told the BBC he had opposed the decision to return the cancer-stricken prisoner to Libya on compassionate grounds in August, his office seemed to rule out a government inquiry into whether lobbying from oil company BP helped pave the way of al-Megrahi’s release.

“As leader of opposition, I couldn’t have been more clear that I thought the decision to release al-Megrahi was completely and utterly wrong,” Cameron told the BBC before leaving Tuesday on his first visit as British leader to the United States, where he is expected to face questioning about the case.

In fact, Cameron’s political party did more than just condemn the former Libyan intelligence agent’s release. In the weeks following, Britain’s Conservatives called for an inquiry into whether trade considerations played any role in the decision.

The party has changed tack, however, since taking control in May of Britain’s government in a coalition. Cameron’s Downing Street office said a government-commissioned inquiry was “not currently under consideration.”

Cameron emphasized that the final decision to release al-Megrahi was made by Scotland’s government, which holds some limited powers within the United Kingdom, and not by the previous British government headed by Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Al-Megrahi served eight years of a life sentence for the Dec. 21, 1988, bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 259 people on board, most of them Americans, and 11 people on the ground.

Scotland’s government has held an inquiry into the release, while Brown’s administration released related documents.

In the last year, Britain’s growing diplomatic and business ties with Libya had been under intense scrutiny, with critics accusing British authorities of putting commercial interests before the families of the 270 victims of the attack.

Four U.S. senators last week asked the State Department to investigate whether BP pressured lawmakers as part of efforts to seek access to Libyan oil fields.

BP has acknowledged it had urged the British government to sign a prisoner transfer agreement with Libya, but stressed it didn’t specifically discuss al-Megrahi’s case during those talks.

Britain’s foreign secretary, William Hague, said there was nothing to suggest BP had influenced the Scottish government.

“There is no evidence that corroborates in any way the allegations of BP involvement in the Scottish executive’s decision to release al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds in 2009, nor any suggestion that the Scottish executive decided to release al-Megrahi in order to facilitate oil deals for BP,” Hague wrote in a letter sent Saturday to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. John Kerry.

New York Sen. Kirsten Gillbrand, one of the four to ask for the inquiry, said she respected Cameron’s latest comments on the subject, but “we need further review of how and why al-Megrahi was released, so we can learn from this mistake and assess what steps can be taken so that justice is served and terrorists are held accountable.”

Sen. Charles Schumer, also of New York, reacted positively and said Cameron’s “admission is a first step in getting to the bottom of what could well be a quid pro quo for an oil contract.”

Relatives of victims killed in the crash said Cameron’s words must be backed by actions to have any real meaning.

“That’s a wonderful statement, what are you going to do to back that up with substance,” asked Bert Ammerman of River Vale, New Jersey, who lost his brother Tom in the crash. He called for both the UK and U.S. to investigate the circumstances of the release.

“There has to be an investigation done on how this took place, and heads have to roll,” he said.

Glenn Johnson of Greensburg, Pennsylvania, whose daughter Beth Ann died in the crash, said Cameron’s words offered little comfort. “For the prime minister to come forward and say it was a mistake, that’s just politics,” he said.

In Washington this week, Cameron will hold talks with President Barack Obama, as well as meetings with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and senior legislators. Separately, he will meet with Sen. John McCain.

Associated Press Writer Deepti Hajela in New York contributed to this report.

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