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Cameron faces questions from Obama on Lockerbie bomber release

By David Usborne

All should be better for David Cameron as he goes to the White House on Tuesday to see Barack Obama now that BP has killed its black plume in the Gulf of Mexico. But it won't be, because he will find a Washington in full fulmination all over again about the release of the Lockerbie conspirator Abdelbaset al-Megrahi.

In a sign of the most unusual strain between the two allies, the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, told the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, yesterday that when hearings into the circumstances of the release – and what involvement BP may have had behind the scenes – open on Capitol Hill on 29 July, she expects Britain to say something new. The implication is that the US isn't buying the explanations London has offered up so far.

Had it not been for the oil spill, BP may never have been in the dock over the Megrahi affair, but the anger in Washington over his release never went away. Ten days ago four US senators wrote a letter to the UK ambassador in Washington, Sir Nigel Sheinwald, voicing dismay over reports that medical reasons given for releasing him on "compassionate grounds" may have been concocted with Libya's direct encouragement. It was only a matter of days before the same senators connected the dots to BP and demanding hearings on the Hill.

Thus late on Thursday, Senator John Kerry confirmed that indeed new hearings would take place within two weeks. Above all, committee members will explore claims that BP urged the Government behind the scenes to release Megrahi.

That all this should flare up now is fantastically bad for BP, which had been bursting every artery to close the broken well in time for the Cameron visit. There is no applause in Washington. As for it happening days before the Prime Minister's first Washington foray – awful.

That Britain should find itself being squeezed in public by the US in this manner is extraordinary. On Thursday, Sir Nigel wrote an open letter to the senators saying the Government believed the release of Megrahi was a "mistake". But he sought to knock down any notion the release was linked to BP's commercial ambitions. "I am troubled by the claims made in the press that Megrahi was released because of an oil deal involving BP, and that the medical evidence supporting his release was paid for by the Libyan government," Sir Nigel wrote in a letter to Mr Kerry.

In an interview with Time magazine, Mr Cameron makes the observation that the US-UK relationship is hardly one of equals. "I think Britain is, of course, the junior partner," he says, "but I ... hope that we bring things to that relationship." That being so, the US is applying its disproportionate weight to pressure Britain to come up with better answers about Megrahi. That seemed at least to be the import of the Clinton call to Mr Hague. "The Secretary indicated that, you know, it might be appropriate for the British Government to communicate with Congress as well to make sure that they fully understand, you know, what transpired a year ago," said Mrs Clinton's spokesman, P J Crowley.

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