Friday, August 28, 2009

Very murky waters indeed


return.jpgNow that the dust has settled, only somewhat and perhaps only for now, over the return of the Lockerbie bomber, we can see some things with a little more clarity -- but much remains murky in the extreme.

For a start, despite the speculation, nobody has produced clinching evidence to show the British government did a backstairs' deal with Colonel Gaddafi for the bomber's return. On the other hand, it is now quite clear that London was anxious to normalise relations with Tripoli as quickly and as best it could -- and that Gaddafi had made it clear that could not happen unless the bomber was sent back.

As a result, attention has moved away from the Scottish government's decision to free the bomber on controversial "compassionate" grounds to London and the role the British government might have played in facilitating the Lockerbie bomber's release. And here we enter very murky waters indeed.

Official and unofficial British government contacts with Libya have been extensive. Last night we learned that three government ministers have made trips to Tripoli in the last 15 months: the then trade minister Digby Jones (May 2008), Health minister Dawn Primarolo (November 2008) and Foreign Office minister Bill Rammell (February 2009).

We do not know what was said in any of these Tripoli talks. But remember this: Saif Gaddifi, the Libyan dictator's favourite son and a key figure in the bomber's release, has averred that "in all commercial contracts for oil and gas with Britain, Megrahi [the now-released bomber] was always on the table." So it's reasonable to assume the ministers had their ears bent.

But not them alone. In recent years two British prime ministers, a Russian oligarch, the scion of a European banking dynasty, a Prince of the Realm, a leader of Big Oil and our very own "Prince of Darkness" (aka Business Secretary Peter Mandelson) have all had walk-on parts, if not more, in events that preceded the release of the Lockerbie bomber. It's a cast of characters that would do justice to a Bond film.

At the centre of this possible web of intrigue is Saif, the shaven-headed, London School of Economics-educated son of the Libyan dictator. Turns out he is a good friend of Oleg Deripaska, the Russian aluminium baron, and Nat Rothschild, of the eponymous banking dynasty.

Saif invited both to his 37th birthday party in June in Becici in Montenegro, into which Deripaska and Rothschild have poured around $1 billion to create a sort of St Tropez in the Balkans. Saif is also pumping Libyan money into Montenegro from his country's vast investment fund, reason enough for Rothschild last year to host a party in his honour in New York.

Thumbnail image for mandelson.jpgWhat's all this got to do with the Lockerbie bomber? Well consider this. Peter Mandelson's love of holidaying with the rich and famous in exotic places took him to Corfu this month for the second year in a row. Last August he visited Rothschild in his $60m Corfu estate and stayed on Deripaska's luxury yacht. This August he stayed at the Rothschild villa - and met Saif Gaddafi.

Mandelson claims the meeting was only "fleeting" but officials admit they did discuss the Lockerbie case. A week later it became public that the bomber might be released on "compassionate" grounds though, of course, there may be no connection. It was then revealed that Mandelson had previously met Saif at a reception in London in May.

The Business Secretary maintains that any suggestion that a deal was being cooked up is not just wrong but "offensive", which we should accept at face value until facts suggest otherwise.

But we have it from Saif's own mouth that there could be no real progress in British-Libyan business co-operation unless the matter of the Lockerbie bomber was dealt with.

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