- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 22, 2010

ENVOY IN TANGLED WEB

The British government is defending its ambassador in Washington against predictions that he will be the scapegoat in the embarrassing, tangled web involving Libya, the Lockerbie bomber and a massive contract for the London-based BP oil giant.

Prime Minister David Cameron, who met with President Obama at the White House on Tuesday, authorized aides to spread the word that Ambassador Nigel Sheinwald is doing a “superb job” and that he has no intention of replacing Mr. Sheinwald before the normal end of his diplomatic tour in about 18 months.

Mr. Cameron spread his defense of Mr. Sheinwald through Benedict Brogan, an influential reporter at the London Daily Telegraph, after a rival newspaper, the Daily Mail, wrote the ambassador’s diplomatic obituary on Tuesday.

“Britain’s ambassador in Washington is facing the axe over his role in the Lockerbie affair,” said the Daily Mail, Britain’s second-biggest-selling newspaper.

The “Lockerbie affair” is shorthand for a triad of scandals that erupted just before Mr. Cameron’s visit to Washington. The British media earlier this month reported new details on the release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the Libyan terrorist convicted of masterminding the 1988 bombing of an American airliner over the town of Lockerbie, Scotland. The bombing claimed 270 victims, including 189 Americans.

One newspaper revealed that al-Megrahi, who has prostrate cancer, is likely to live another 10 years instead of the three months he was given before Scotland released him last August. A doctor who issued the three-month prognosis claimed he was paid by Libya, which gave al-Megrahi a hero’s welcome after his return to Tripoli.

Another report linked BP, the oil conglomerate now polluting the American Gulf coast, to the prisoner release and a Libyan oil-exploration contract worth more than $900 million.

As a foreign-policy aid to former Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2003, Mr. Sheinwald helped in negotiations that led to Libya’s decision to abandon its nuclear weapons program. He also was involved in talks over an agreement on a prisoner exchange with Libya in 2007. At the same time, BP was pressing for the prisoner exchange in order to get the oil contract, according to a statement released by the company.

Mr. Sheinwald and Mr. Cameron denied any link between the prisoner-exchange agreement and the BP oil deal. The ambassador also debunked the story about the British doctor being paid by Libya.

The Daily Mail quoted British sources in Washington as saying that Mr. Sheinwald’s connection to the Libyan affair doomed his ambassadorship.

Sir Nigel is seen as tainted by the Lockerbie affairs,” one source told the newspaper.

However, a former British diplomat in Washington told Embassy Row on Thursday that the report is “rubbish.”

“From everything I hear, London thinks he is doing an excellent job,” said the former diplomat who asked not to be identified because he did not want to be dragged into the controversy.

Frank Duggin - a Washington lawyer and president of the Victims of Pan Am Flight 103, which represents the relatives of those killed in the bombing - said an aide to Mr. Cameron dismissed the rumor this week.

Mr. Duggin told Embassy Row that he was on a conference call with Cameron aide Thomas Fletcher, who wanted to speak to the victims’ families and asked that he make arrangements through Mr. Sheinwald.

“He laughed when we said we heard [Mr. Sheinwald] was being replaced,” Mr. Duggin said. “He told us that was not the case and we should not believe everything we read about the ambassador.”

  • Call Embassy Row at 202/636-3297 or e-mail jmorrison@washington times.com.