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Obama-Cameron Meet Overshadowed By BP and Libya

Eli Clifton

WASHINGTON, Jul 21 2010 (IPS) - British Prime Minister David Cameron’s visit to Washington, DC on Tuesday was supposed to be an opportunity for the Conservative Party leader to build a rapport with U.S. President Barack Obama.

But allegations that BP, one of the world’s largest petroleum companies, exerted influence over the Scottish and British government to free Libyan prisoners including Abdel Baset al-Megrahi – the man convicted of bombing a Pan Am flight over Lockerbie Scotland in 1988 which killed 270 people, including 189 U.S. citizens – is overshadowing what would be an otherwise upbeat set of meetings in Washington.

The circumstances around the release received widespread attention after Megrahi returned to Libya in Aug. 2009.

Cameron has been adamant that the decision to free Megrahi was made by the Scottish government and that there is no evidence to suggest that the government was “in any way swayed by BP”. But he did acknowledge that a review of government documents about the release would be necessary.

“We’re going to go back over this information and see if more needs to be published,” Cameron said Tuesday.

Last week, four U.S. Senators expressed concern that the release of Megrahi may have been tied to BP’s pursuit of an oil exploration contract with the Libyan government.

“Both the British and United States have vowed to fight a war on terror, and if one of the worst terrorists in history, responsible for more deaths than all but a handful of people, can be released for a few coins, or pounds, what does it say to other terrorists?” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-NY).

Schumer, along with Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D- NY) and Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), are calling on BP to suspend drilling plans in Libya until it has been determined whether the company played a role in Meghrahi’s release.

“There is clear reason to believe that this terrorist was released based on false information about his health,” Schumer said in a written statement. “This is especially galling to those of us who believed he shouldn’t have been released, even if it had been true that his death was imminent.”

Doctor’s had estimated that Megrahi, who suffering from prostate cancer had as little as three-months left to live before his release last year, but recent reports from Libya have suggested that he may live for as many as ten years.

On Thursday, State Department spokesperson PJ Crowley told reporters that, “We accepted at face value what Scottish authorities told us, that this was a humanitarian decision that they made based on the medical information that was available to them.”

“We said categorically that this was a mistake, and that is still our view today…. We understand the outrage that the families of Pan Am 103 and their elected officials feel about this,” Crowley continued.

The Scottish government has maintained that the release was conducted on “compassionate grounds” and that BP had no involvement in the decision. But BP has admitted lobbying the British government in 2007 over a prisoner transfer agreement (PTA) with Libya and acknowledged that a delay in the transfer might have “negative consequences” for UK businesses seeking to do business in Libya.

While BP has admitted that it lobbied for the prisoner transfer in 2007, it has adamantly denied that it lobbied for Megrahi’s transfer in 2009.

British ambassador to the U.S., Nigel Sheinwald, issued a statement last week saying, “The new British Government is clear that Megrahi’s release was a mistake.”

Sheinwald went on to reiterate the government’s position – that the decision to release Megrahi was a decision made solely by the Scottish government.

“Under UK law, where Scottish justice issues are devolved to Scotland, it fell solely to the Scottish Executive to consider Megrahi’s case,” said Sheinwald. “Under Scottish law, Megrahi was entitled to be considered for release on compassionate grounds.”

While allegations that BP lobbied for Megrahi’s release are overshadowing Cameron’s visit – his first since he took office in May – other issues of importance to both London and Washington were discussed in meetings with Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and House and Senate leadership.

Obama and Cameron discussed Afghanistan – where both countries’ troops are fighting – and Obama hailed today’s international conference in Kabul today as “another major step forward” in the Afghan government’s efforts to improve security, accelerate economic growth and expand basic government services.

Cameron faces tough questions from the media and, presumably, U.S. politicians, about the role of BP in securing Megrahi’s release but at a White House news conference Obama was quick to emphasise the partnership between the two leaders.

“I appreciate David’s steady leadership and his pragmatic approach,” Obama said. “And just as he’s off to an energetic start at home, I think we’ve had a brilliant start as partners who see eye to eye on virtually every challenge before us.”

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