Libya has hinted for the first time that it is considering compensating the families of IRA victims in recognition that it armed the terrorists.
Colonel Muammar Gadaffi supplied arms and explosives to Irish republican paramilitaries during the Troubles and the recent release of the Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, has seen renewed calls for an apology and compensation from Tripoli for its role in the IRA killings.
In a rare interview with a top Libyan official yesterday, the deputy minister for foreign affairs indicated that the IRA compensation claims were part of ongoing discussions between Tripoli and London and that they could be approaching some form of agreement.
Asked what was happening with the claims, Mohammed Siala, the Secretary for International Co-operation, said: “It is a special case. We have a good understanding with the UK.”
However, Mr Siala suggested that families may still have a wait ahead of them, adding: “Things have not matured yet.”
Last week's release of Megrahi has sparked a storm of protest in the US and UK, with the British government fending off accusations that it handed him over in return for lucrative oil and gas deals from Libya.
Both sides have denied any deal. However, the revelation that the government had declared Megrahi's release to be in the UK's “overwhelming interest” two |years ago has heaped pressure on London.
The Libyan minister also said that any prospect of progress in bringing the killer of WPC Yvonne Fletcher to justice would depend on co-operation from the British government over allegations that MI6 endorsed an assassination attempt on Colonel Gadaffi.
Asked about repeated attempts to extradite Libyan suspects in Ms Fletcher's killing, Mr Siala replied by insisting that Britain “had tried to kill Gadaffi” in a botched bombing in 1996.
“These two cases are linked together,” said Mr Siala, who added there could be no progress on the investigation into the killing without new information on the alleged UK plot.
“We're waiting for information from the UK,” he said.
The constable was shot dead while policing a demonstration outside the Libyan embassy in London in 1984.
The killing remains one of the biggest pieces of unfinished business between the two trading partners since diplomatic ties were restored.
Allegations that Britain funded a failed attempt by a Libyan Islamic extremist group on the Libyan leader's life were first made by a former MI5 agent, David Shayler, in 1998. The renegade spy alleged that a wing of MI6 endorsed a plot to kill Col Gadaffi, but that agents placed explosives under the wrong car in the Libyan leader's motorcade in February 1996, killing six bystanders.
The then foreign secretary |Malcolm Rifkind dismissed the claims and his Labour successor Robin Cook also denied the rogue agent's allegations.
A British diplomat in Tripoli said yesterday that the matter had been thoroughly investigated already: “The Metropolitan Police found the claims to be baseless,” he said.
The Foreign Office (FCO) said in a statement: “We have assured Col Gadaffi that there was no British plot to assassinate him.”
The Crown Prosecution Service shelved claims against two British agents in 2001 after a two-year |investigation.
The FCO also appealed to the Libyan leader to allow British police to return to the country for a fourth time to continue their inquiries into the Fletcher murder.
It is understood that a chief suspect has been identified and has been the subject of “high-level talks” between the two countries.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Col Gadaffi became an international pariah with his sponsorship of terrorist organisations, whom he refers to as freedom fighters.
During this period, Libya sent shipments of weapons and ammunition to the IRA which were used in a number of attacks in the UK.
Gordon Brown assured victims of Libyan-sponsored IRA attacks that he would do everything in his power to support the campaign for compensation at a meeting in Westminster in December last year.
In 2003, Libya paid out $2.7bn (£1.6bn) in compensation to the families of those killed on Pan Am flight 103 when it exploded over Lockerbie.
How Gaddafi helped the IRA
During the 1970s and the 1980s, the IRA was one of a number of causes that received support from Libya. Other groups backed by Colonel Gaddafi included Eta and the Baader-Meinhof gang.
The supply of arms by Libya to the IRA was first discovered in 1973, when a merchant ship named the Claudia was seized. Its cargo contained 500 hand-grenades and 5,000lb of explosives.
Altogether at least four shiploads of eastern European weapons were delivered to the IRA. The Libyan regime claims shipments then ceased, but resumed again in 1986 after the Americans took off from British soil to bomb Tripoli (Colonel Gaddafi's adopted daughter was one of those killed in the attacks).
In 1987 another consignment of weapons was captured on its way to the IRA from Libya, this time by the French authorities.