Downing Street believed Nelson Mandela’s attempt to play mediator between it and the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi over the question of compensation after the Lockerbie bombing was “unlikely to be helpful”, documents reveal.
But despite misgivings, No 10 aides did not rule out using Mandela “back against [Gaddafi] if Libya rejected a reasonable offer”, the documents released by the National Archives in the UK show.
At a Downing Street meeting in April 2001, the former South African leader told Tony Blair it was “wrong to hold Libya legally responsible for the Lockerbie bombing”, and against public international law, despite the conviction of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi in January 2001 after a trial in the Netherlands.
Blair argued that the UK was not “insisting” Gaddafi “had ordered the Lockerbie bombing” and that the “Libyan state may not be directly responsible”, according to a record of the meeting by Blair’s foreign policy adviser, John Sawers, later head of MI6.
But Blair said “they were still liable for Megrahi’s actions” and the Lockerbie trial had found “Megrahi had been a member of the Libyan intelligence service” when he carried out the bombing, the record said.
Blair added that if Megrahi lost his appeal against conviction, “then presumably Libya would have to come to some arrangement on paying compensation”.
Sawers wrote that the crucial point was Libyan acceptance of responsibility. “We might even be able to use Mandela back against [Gaddafi] if the Libyan’s reject a reasonable offer,” he concluded.
Mandela had earlier claimed the UK broke a promise that sanctions would be lifted rather than merely suspended if Libya handed over bombing suspects. In a briefing note to Sawers, Mark Sedwill, the private secretary to the foreign secretary, Robin Cook, wrote: “Mandela is, at best, suffering from selective memory and a basic misunderstanding of international law.”
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