- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 26, 2009

In a bid to head off any embarrassing diplomatic clash, the State Department said Tuesday that it was working with Libya to find a place other than the New Jersey suburbs for Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi to stay when he visits the United Nations next month.

Libya has drawn criticism from families and friends of Americans who died in the 1998 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, because the only person convicted in the attack, a terminally ill Libyan intelligence officer, received a hero’s welcome last week when he returned home after his release from a Scottish prison.

The U.S. and British governments also strongly protested the reception staged by Col. Gadhafi, who has ruled Libya since a 1969 coup.

Libyan officials have suggested that Col. Gadhafi might set up a Bedouin-style tent at a Libyan-owned estate in the upscale New Jersey suburb of Englewood to accommodate him and his entourage. Some of the families of victims of the Lockerbie bombing - 23 of the 259 people killed were from New Jersey - live nearby and local officials and residents have protested the idea.

State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said U.S. officials would keep in mind the “very raw sensibilities” of the families as it works to find a residence for Col. Gadhafi, who is set to address the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 23.

“Our priority has been and will remain the families of the victims of this tragedy,” Mr. Kelly told reporters. “We, of course, are sensitive to the concerns of the communities that might be affected by any travel arrangements made for the Libyan delegation.”

Mr. Kelly said the department is in discussions with lawmakers and local authorities in the New York area on the matter and is “also talking to the Libyans to highlight the concerns that we have and the very raw sensibilities or sensitivities of the families who live in that area.”

Mr. Kelly stressed that no decisions have been made as to where Col. Gadhafi will stay. Nor, he said, has a decision been made on a request by Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, New Jersey Democrat, who has asked that the Libyan leader’s movement be limited to the immediate area around U.N. headquarters.

Under its host-nation agreement with the United Nations, the United States is obligated to allow foreign leaders, other officials and diplomats into the country to visit or work at the United Nations, with limited exceptions. However, the agreement allows U.S. authorities to restrict their movement to a 25-mile radius around U.N. headquarters in Manhattan.

It was not immediately clear whether Mr. Lautenberg’s proposal, which would essentially prevent Col. Gadhafi from leaving the U.N. compound on Manhattan’s East Side, would be enforceable.

Col. Gadhafi met in person with the freed Lockerbie bomber, former intelligence agent Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, on his return to Libya.

Top officials in the United States and Britain, including President Obama and Prime Minister Gordon Brown, condemned al-Megrahi’s welcome in Libya. U.S. officials have also strongly criticized Scottish justice authorities for approving his release, which was ordered on compassionate grounds because he is dying of cancer.

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