- Associated Press - Thursday, March 31, 2011

LONDON (AP) — Britain on Thursday refused to offer Libyan Foreign MinisterMoussa Koussa immunity from prosecution after his apparent defection but said his departure would hearten rebels fighting to topple Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s regime.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the resignation of Mr. Koussa, one of the most senior members of Col. Gadhafi’s government, shows that the Libyan leader’s regime is “fragmented, under pressure and crumbling.”

But Mr. Hague said that “Koussa is not being offered any immunity from British or international justice,” dampening speculation that the British government might seek to overlook allegations — leveled by Libya‘s opposition — that he played a pivotal role in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, among other atrocities.

Gadhafi must be thinking to himself, ‘Who will be the next to walk away?’” Mr. Hague said.

Mr. Hague said that it wouldn’t be “helpful to advertise” whether or not other senior members of the regime planned to quit but that he believes many likely privately oppose Col. Gadhafi’s actions.

Authorities debriefed Mr. Koussa, a trusted Gadhafi adviser and longtime stalwart in the Libyan regime, after he fled to Britain on Wednesday on a private plane from Tunisia — apparently with little notice to the British government. Mr. Hague said Mr. Koussa was in a “secure place in the United Kingdom,” but the British minister did not disclose further details.

The Libyan opposition alleges that Mr. Koussa, regarded as one of Col. Gadhafi’s closest allies, had a role in masterminding the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, which killed 270 people, most of them Americans. Mr. Koussa was expelled from Britain in 1980 after giving an interview advocating the use of violence to silence U.K. critics of Libya‘s government.

His name also was associated with the bombing of a French aircraft over Niger in 1989, but in recent years he helped with diplomatic progress that ended Libya‘s international isolation.

Former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw described Mr. Koussa as a key player who had a “fundamentally important” role in negotiations to bring Libya back into the international fold in the 1990s after terror attacks tainted the North African country’s reputation. Mr. Koussa’s departure would shift the balance away from Col. Gadhafi, if only psychologically.

Moussa Koussa’s apparent defection — certainly his unscheduled visit here — will be a very important factor in just adding to the weight against the Gadhafi regime and tipping the balance against him,” Mr. Straw told BBC radio. “From a distance, what’s clear is that there is unlikely to be any military ‘victory’ for either side. So it does depend on which side psychologically collapses.”

Mr. Koussa’s move would be the first high-profile resignation since the U.S.-led airstrikes on Libyan forces began. Libya‘s justice and interior ministers resigned early in the conflict and joined the rebels fighting in the east.

Though Mr. Koussa’s name long was connected with liquidating dissidents in Western and Arab capitals, he later became instrumental in negotiations with the West that led to the dismantling of Libya‘s nuclear program.

In 2003, Libya accepted responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing and agreed to pay restitution to the victims. Col. Gadhafi also announced he was dismantling his nuclear weapons program, bringing a major breakthrough in U.S.-Libyan ties. Those steps prompted the United States and Europe to lift sanctions against Libya.

Britain restored diplomatic relations in 1999, ending Libya‘s international isolation.

Guma El-Gamaty, an organizer in Britain for a leading Libyan opposition group, said Mr. Koussa’s action would be “a big hit” that would weaken Col. Gadhafi.

“He says he is resigning,” Mr. El-Gamaty said. “That means he is defecting. He has been Gadhafi’s right-hand man for years, running intelligence, running the Lockerbie bomber negotiations, running many things.”

Mr. El-Gamaty said he does not think Mr. Koussa is likely to remain in Britain but probably would end up in another country in an effort to avoid possible prosecution.

He said that Mr. Koussa would not be welcomed into the opposition movement because of his prior actions on behalf of the Gadhafi government.

David Stringer in London and Katarina Kratovac and Maggie Michael in Cairo contributed to this story.