US terror victims angered by Libya pact

Bush administration calls the historic reconciliation between the US and the Tripoli a victory.

us libya deal 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
us libya deal 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
The historic reconciliation between the United States and Libya last week, capped by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's announcement Friday that she will visit the North African country before leaving office, has left some American victims of Libyan terrorism outraged. "They allow this horrible terrorist who murdered my daughter and all these other people to triumph. This is a triumph for terrorism," said Susan Cohen, whose daughter Theodora Cohen was killed in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. "All this does [is] it says we swept the families away. We pretend that Gaddafi never blew up an American plane." Despite anger from bereaved families, who wanted Libya to be held accountable for its actions, the US signed an agreement on Thursday setting all outstanding lawsuits by victims against Libya. Tripoli still needs to come up with $500 million to $1 billion in compensation for attacks including the one on the Pan Am flight and on the 1986 bombing of La Belle discotheque in Berlin, which killed two American soldiers and wounded more than 75 other US citizens. But the agreement is not meant to be taken as an admission of guilt. Compensation for terror victims was the last unresolved issue in close to five years of rapprochement. The effort began in 2001 after Libya pledged to stop supporting terrorism and then later to give up its weapons of mass destruction program and provide some compensation to terror victims. The Bush administration has pointed to Libya's shift as a major diplomatic achievement and has been eager to shore up the process before the end of the term. The resolution paves the way for a full restoration of diplomatic relations, allowing for Washington to provide direct aid to Libyans, and includes the opening of an embassy in Tripoli, sending an American ambassador and Rice's visit. Her trip would be the first visit by a secretary of state since 1953; the US and Libya have had no formal diplomatic relations since 1980. Libya's changed posture has removed its global pariah status, giving it a reprieve from UN, US and European sanctions, removing it from the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism and allowing it a seat on the UN Security Council. "This will turn a new page in our relationship," David Welch, assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, said at the agreement's signing ceremony in Tripoli on Thursday, adding that the document was "designed to resolve the last major historical issue that has stood in the way of a more normal relationship between our two countries." Back in Washington on Friday, Welch acknowledged the "heartache" the issue had cause and called the lawsuits "a source of tension in our relationship for a long time," but he said "this agreement provides a process and a mechanism that will give fair compensation to the claimants from both sides for these past incidents." Some victims' family members also support the opportunity to receive compensation and closure. Welch also said the example of Libya sends a message to Iran and other countries pursing weapons of mass destruction and terrorism that the US is willing to open to them if they renounce terrorism and the acquisition of WMDs. "There is a path of responsible behavior that, if countries are sincere in taking it, then I believe, the secretary of state believes, and the president of the United States believes that that should be addressed in a manner that shows them that this works." Though Libya paid the 268 families involved in the Pan Am settlement $8 million each, it was withholding an additional $2m. it owed each of them because of a dispute over US obligations in return. There were 26 pending lawsuits filed by American citizens against Libya, said a senior Libyan government official. He said there were also three outstanding lawsuits filed by Libyan citizens for US air strikes on Tripoli and Benghazi in 1986 that Libyans say killed 41 people, including leader Muammar Gaddafi's adopted daughter. The La Belle disco attack had prompted then-president Ronald Reagan to order the 1986 strikes on Libya. The agreement also gives immunity to the Libyan government from any further terrorism-related lawsuits, the Libyan government official said. The latter issue became a sticking point because of US legislation which would allow for further lawsuits. But Congress passed a law last month which allowed for an exemption and diplomatic relations to be reestablished, so long as Libya complies with its outstanding compensation commitments. A joint US-Libya statement issued during Welch's trip said "both parties welcomed the establishment of a process to provide fair compensation for their respective nationals, and thereby turn their focus to the future of their bilateral relationship." Under the agreement, a fund will be set up to compensate the American and Libyan claimants. International institutions and foreign companies operating in Libya - including some American firms - are expected to contribute to the fund. Welch called the agreement "historic" and said he delivered a letter from US President George W. Bush to Gaddafi. Ahmed Al-Fatouri, head of American affairs in the Libyan Foreign Ministry, who signed the deal with Welch, said the two nations "went through a long path of negotiations" before reaching the agreement. "It opens new horizons for relations based on mutual respect," al-Fatouri said. "The agreement turns the page on the negative past forever." AP contributed to this report.