- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 26, 2009

LONDON | Embattled British Prime Minister Gordon Brown broke his silence Tuesday over the release of the Lockerbie bomber from prison - but only just.

Mr. Brown said at a news conference in London that he was “angry” and “repulsed” by the jubilant reception accorded in Libya to the former intelligence agent convicted of Britain’s biggest mass murder.

But Mr. Brown did not say whether he agreed that the decision to free Abdel Baset al-Megrahi from a Scottish prison and send him back to his home in Libya to die of prostate cancer was a correct one.

“I was both angry and I was repulsed by the reception that a convicted bomber guilty of a huge terrorist crime received on his return to Libya,” Mr. Brown said, after a meeting with visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The British leader had come under increasing pressure to comment on the Lockerbie case, with some critics accusing him of a “deafening silence” and “cowardly” behavior.

The issue of freedom for the man blamed for killing 270 people, most of them Americans, by blowing up Pan-Am Flight 103 in the skies over Lockerbie, Scotland, in December 1988, has left Mr. Brown caught in a major diplomatic vice.

On the one hand he is known to be anxious for improved economic relations with Libya and its long-time leader, Moammar Gadhafi - with, numerous observers claim, an eye on that nation’s 44-billion-barrel reserves of oil and 1.5 trillion cubic meters of natural gas beneath its sands.

On the other, many Americans are furious over what they see as a sell-out to an oil-rich Middle East dictatorship that gave a hero’s welcome to the only person yet convicted in the bombing that killed hundreds of people, including many university students on their way home for Christmas.

Moreover, correspondence between Mr. Brown and Col. Gadhafi released over the weekend showed the two leaders discussed al-Megrahi’s release while meeting at an economic summit in Italy in June.

The British prime minister’s political headaches are compounded by a general election he must call within the next 10 months - and which he is solidly predicted to lose.

A Guardian/ICM public opinion poll published this week showed the main opposition Conservative Party preferred by 41 percent of those interviewed, compared with 25 percent for the troubled Labor Party that Mr. Brown leads.

The prime minister insisted yet again that his government played no part in the release of al-Megrahi. “I made it clear to Col. Gadhafi in July that we could have no role in the release of the Lockerbie bomber,” he said. That, his government has contended, was a matter for the Scottish government - and, in fact, al-Megrahi’s handover was ordered by the Scottish justice minister.

However, it’s not that easy for Mr. Brown’s Labor government to wash its hands of the affair simply as a Scottish matter. It was this same Labor government, under Mr. Brown’s predecessor Tony Blair, that OK’d the referendum in Scotland that led to the devolved Scottish Parliament - the government that decided al-Megrahi should be freed.

Part of the problem with Mr. Brown’s stance is a comment by Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, the Libyan leader’s son and possible heir, on the flight with al-Megrahi back to Libya last week and reported by the Times newspaper in London: “In all commercial contracts for oil and gas with Britain, al-Megrahi was always on the negotiating table.”

Saif Gadhafi also is on record as saying al-Megrahi was Libya’s “fall guy” for the Lockerbie bombing in the economic chess game over establishing trade relations.

The British Broadcasting Corp. cites the potency of Libya’s “oil diplomacy” by a little-reported event on the day al-Megrahi landed back in that country. Switzerland has been having its own problems with Col. Gadhafi, and its president, Hans-Rudolf Merz, was in Tripoli apologizing profusely to the Libyan people.

“The move stunned his people back home,” the BBC reported, “but it seemed clear that Switzerland saw no other way out of a year-long diplomatic spat with Libya.” That, the report explained, had its origin in the arrest by Swiss police of Col. Gadhafi’s son Hannibal and his wife for reportedly mistreating two of their servants.

“The move infuriated the Libyan government,” the BBC said, “and it was not long before Swiss companies and nationals were driven out of the country and the oil taps were half shut.”

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