Nearly 10 years after Pan Am flight 103 exploded over the Scottish town of Lockerbie, the United States and Britain have agreed to a compromise over prosecuting two Libyan intelligence agents accused of the bombing.
Until now, the British and American governments have insisted that the two should be tried in Scotland or the US. But a "new look" American antiterrorist strategy, plus Col. Muammar Qaddafi's notorious stubbornness, are among the key reasons the United States and Britain have launched a fresh attempt to prosecute the two Libyans, Abdel Basset al- Megrahi and Lamin Khalifa Fhimah.
Diplomatic sources in both countries say a striking move announced Aug. 24 in Washington and London offers possibly the last hope of bringing the two men to justice. Under the plan, both men would appear before a special court in The Hague. The case would be held under Scottish law before three Scottish judges, and, if the accused are convicted, they would serve their sentences in a Scottish jail.
A British diplomat said that the new offer was an attempt to "flush out" the Libyan leader by "calling his bluff." The diplomat also said that for some time the Clinton administration had been refocusing its antiterrorist strategy.
The aim was to lay less emphasis on the activities of individual terrorists and more on preventing terrorism and punishing those known to be responsible for it. Furthermore, Britain and the US have decided that, with the 10th anniversary of Lockerbie looming, a compromise offer amounting to "offshore justice" was needed to break the deadlock.
For several years, relatives of the Lockerbie victims have pressed the two governments to make Libya a compromise offer. And member-states of the Organization for African Unity have increasingly threatened to stop implementing sanctions unless a trial is agreed to in a third country.
As an inducement, Colonel Qaddafi will be told that if he agrees to extradite the two men, United Nations-backed economic sanctions against Libya will be dropped. If he refuses, the implication is that his earlier offer to hand over the suspects for trial in a "neutral" country will be exposed as a lie.
United States Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said the offer to the Libyan regime was "nonnegotiable." The United States has warned that if Qaddafi rejects the offer to try the two suspects in The Hague, it will lobby for wider international sanctions on Libya that will include an oil embargo.
There is a strong suggestion in British government circles that a negative response would give the international community cause to keep sanctions clamped on his country until he complies. Already, however, there are signs that Libya will try to sidestep the joint US-British initiative or attempt to insist on altering its terms.
Alistair Duff, a Scottish lawyer acting for the Libyans, says the suspects should be allowed to decide for themselves whether to appear before the special court. He added, however, that the difficulties of persuading them to do so were "not insurmountable."
Shortly after the US and Britain made their announcements, officials in the two countries said the campaign to redouble pressure on Qaddafi would begin at the United Nations in New York. "The terms of the new offer will be placed before the Security Council," a British official says.