WITH Libya backing off its promise to turn two Libyans suspected of the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am jet over to the Arab League, the United Nations Security Council is proceeding with plans to impose sanctions, possibly early next week.
The Security Council's posture was reinforced by the failure of a delegation of seven Arab League foreign ministers, which left Tripoli on Wednesday, to convince Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi to resolve the crisis quickly.
Colonel Qaddafi told Arab League envoys that Libya's UN ambassador had erred in announcing Monday that the country would turn over the two suspects, an Arab diplomat said yesterday.
Libya does have one wild card remaining, which may have factored in Qaddafi's intitial snub of the Arab League's efforts. Today in The Hague, the World Court is scheduled to begin to hear a case Tripoli has brought, asking it to rule that the two Libyans should be tried by a Libyan court. Qaddafi told the Arab League envoys he would not give up the two suspects unless ordered by the World Court to do so. The court could take months to rule.
Security Council members had been watching closely to see if the Libyans would follow through on their offer, or if it simply was a ruse to stall the sanctions vote. Qaddafi's announcement seems to give the Council a green light, and is certain to upset Libya's Arab neighbors who have worked diligently on its behalf. (Repercussions in Arab world, Page 3.)
The Arab League, however, is continuing to search for a diplomatic solution. Some optimistic Western diplomats believe Libya fully intends to surrender the suspects, but how, when, and where remains to be determined. According to several diplomats, all of whom requested anonymity, this would likely take place in Cairo. Such a move could stave off the sanctions threat.
Libya's refusal to turn the suspects over to the Arab League envoys was an abrupt and bizarre about-face in Tripoli's position.
Under terms first discussed on Monday between UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali and Libya's representative to the UN, the Arab League was to receive the two suspects, Abdel Basset Ali Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhima. The pair would be handed to a representative of the secretary-general, or perhaps to Mr. Bourtos-Ghali himself. UN officials would then give the Libyans to Britain or the United States, where they could be tried.
The secretary-general asked Libya's envoy, Ali Ahmed Elhouderi, for written confirmation of his country's proposal, a document the ambassador was reportedly reluctant to provide. Mr. Elhouderi was unavailable for comment.
One ranking Security Council official, who had expected the handover to occur today or tomorrow, was more skeptical after Qaddafi's statement yesterday.
Diplomats made it clear that Libya would not be allowed to set the timetable.
"If we see that the guy's just playing with us one more time, we'll press for sanctions," said an envoy who represents a Security Council member, referring to Qaddafi.
"We are not prepared to wait forever," added another Western official close to the negotiations. "If the Libyans are serious about this, it shouldn't be too difficult." Otherwise, he said, the Security Council could meet Friday for discussion and vote on sanctions as early as Monday.
The United States, Britain, and France are demanding the Council levy sanctions on Libya if it does not hand over six Libyans implicated in the Pan Am crash over Scotland, which killed 270 people, and the bombing of UTA Flight 772, a French airliner that went down over West Africa in 1989 carrying 170 people.
Diplomats say they are confident that almost all of the 15 Security Council members would vote for sanctions, which include a ban on all airline flights to Libya. One holdout could be China, which has firmly stated its opposition to sanctions. But observers expect the Chinese to abstain in any vote on this issue, rather than use their veto power to defeat a majority opinion.
Patience with Libya seemed to be wearing thin even among Arab diplomats, despite an Arab League resolution adopted on Sunday calling for the Security Council to postpone sanctions until after the World Court ruling.
"We made it very clear, at least in our minds, and we hope in our declarations and our representations to our Libyan colleague, that we don't think that anything is negotiable," said one UN envoy to a League member. Some North African nations fear that punitive measures against Libya could unleash a fundamentalist backlash in their own countries.