Politics & Government

Did BP get Lockerbie terrorist released? Britain's Cameron rejects it

WASHINGTON — British Prime Minister David Cameron on Tuesday rejected calls for an investigation of the British government's release last year of an American-killing terrorist, dismissing charges that oil giant BP engineered the release to win oil business in Libya.

Making his first visit to the White House since taking office in May, Cameron condemned the decision to release the Lockerbie bomber — just as he did a year ago when he was leading the Conservative Party opposition to the British government led then by the Labor Party.

"This was the biggest mass murderer in British history and there was no business in letting him out of prison," Cameron said.

The release last year was controversial and emotion-charged for the families of those killed when a bomb blew up Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, on Dec. 21, 1988, killing 270 people, 189 of them Americans.

Abdel Baset al-Megrahi was convicted in the bombing. He was serving a life sentence when Scottish authorities released him last August to return to Libya, saying he had cancer and less than three months to live. He received a hero's welcome in Libya and is still alive.

Cameron said he's seen no evidence to support allegations that oil giant BP pressured the British government in Scotland to release the terrorist in exchange for Libyan oil contracts.

"I haven't seen anything to suggest that the Scottish government were in any way swayed by BP," Cameron said at a joint news conference at the White House with President Barack Obama.

"They were swayed by their considerations about the need to release him on compassionate grounds — grounds that I think were completely wrong," Cameron said. "I don't think it's right to show compassion to a mass murderer like that. I think it was wrong."

Lacking any evidence of a prisoner-for-oil swap, he said, "I don't need an inquiry to tell me what was a bad decision. It was a bad decision."

Obama declined to press for a British investigation but said he'd welcome it.

"All of us here in the United States were surprised, disappointed and angry about the release of the Lockerbie bomber," Obama said. "And my administration expressed very clearly our objections prior to the decision being made and subsequent to the decision being made. So we welcome any additional information that will give us insights and a better understanding of why the decision was made."

Anger at BP's massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico renewed this grievance, raising anew questions about whether BP had pressured the British government to release the man to Libya so that BP could win deepwater drilling rights there.

BP insists that it never discussed al-Megrahi, but the company acknowledges that it pressed the British government to sign a general prisoner transfer agreement with Libya.

In May 2007, the British and Libyan governments signed a memorandum agreeing to negotiate prisoner transfers as well as other issues. The same month, BP signed an oil agreement with Libya.

Cameron stressed that under British law, the Scottish government had the sole power to release al-Megrahi.

"In terms of an inquiry, there has been an inquiry by the Scottish Parliament into the way the decision was made," he said. "The British government, the last British government, released a whole heap of information about this decision. But I've asked the Cabinet secretary today to go back through all of the paperwork and see if more needs to be published about the background to this decision."

Cameron also said his government would "engage constructively" with hearings in Congress. Cameron was meeting later with congressional delegations from New Jersey and New York, home to many of the Americans killed in the Lockerbie bombing.

On Afghanistan, Cameron said that he and Obama reaffirmed their joint commitment to training Afghan army and police forces so that U.S. and British forces can withdraw.

"We also agreed on the need to reinvigorate the political strategy for Afghanistan," Cameron said. "Insurgencies tend not to be defeated by military means alone. There must also be political settlement. And to those people currently fighting, if they give up violence, if they cut themselves off from al Qaeda, if they accept the basic tenets of the Afghan constitution, they can have a future in a peaceful Afghanistan."


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