· Anger at release of Lockerbie bomber
· Libya gives funds for US victims
· Libya celebrates the revolution
The revelation prompted accusations that Britain had acted to protect energy deals, and added to questions about whether trade ties influenced last month’s decision to release Lockerbie bomber Abdel Baset al-Megrahi.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown said his government "does not consider it appropriate to enter into a bilateral discussion with Libya on this matter," according to a letter to victims’ lawyer Jason McCue released by Downing Street.
The news outraged British survivors of IRA bombings - particularly since US victims of IRA attacks have secured a separate compensation deal with Tripoli.
Brown later told reporters in Berlin he would offer diplomatic support to private efforts to secure compensation, but he still shied away from pursuing the issue with Libya directly.
"I desperately care about what has happened to the people who have been victims of IRA terrorism," he said.
McCue said he was overjoyed at the announcement of diplomatic support, predicting a compensation deal could now be negotiated within weeks.
The foreign affairs spokesman for Britain’s opposition Conservatives, William Hague, said Brown should have provided diplomatic support "as a matter of course, not as a result of public pressure."
Brown argued that his government had previously avoided broaching the issue with the Libyans out of a desire to wean the North African nation away from its sponsorship of terrorism and its pursuit of nuclear weapons.
"It is these concerns - security and terrorism, not oil or commercial interests - that have been the dominant feature of our relationship," Brown said.
Libya once supplied weapons and explosives to terrorists around the world, including several tons of Semtex plastic explosive sent to IRA rebels fighting to drive Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom. The IRA used those explosives in the 1980s and 90s.
But Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi performed an about-face in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, renouncing terrorism, dismantling his country’s secret nuclear program, and accepting his government’s responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing, the 1988 attack which killed 270 people, mostly Americans.
Brown and other government officials stressed the need to keep Libya on that route when explaining why they did not press the Libyans for compensation for the IRA’s attacks. But documents released on Sunday - including a letter sent from Middle East minister Bill Rammel to Jonathan Ganesh, a survivor of one of the IRA bombings - suggest that the government was also keeping Libya’s vast oil wealth in mind.
"Libya has genuinely become an important international partner for the UK on many levels," Rammel said in the letter, dated November 6.
In addition to cooperating on terrorism, Rammel noted that "Libya is now a vital partner for the UK in guaranteeing a secure energy future for the UK."
Ganesh told British broadcasters that that passage said it all.
"It’s because of an oil deal with BP. I really believe that," he told Sky News television. He was referring to the $900 million exploration agreement the British energy company signed with Libya Investment Corp. in May 2007.
The same month, Britain and Libya signed a memorandum of understanding that paved the way for al-Megrahi’s release from a Scottish prison.
The decision last month to free al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds - he is suffering from terminal pancreatic cancer - also fuelled questions about whether Britain was putting trade before the bombing victims.
Brown insists the decision was made by independent Scottish authorities, but media have suggested otherwise.
On Friday, BP PLC said it had warned British officials to quickly seal a prisoner transfer agreement with Libya. Such a deal would have allowed al-Megrahi to serve out his sentence in Libya, though BP said it did not refer specifically to al-Megrahi’s case.
Justice Minister Jack Straw said Saturday that trade - particularly the BP oil deal - had been "a very big part" of the 2007 negotiations that led to the prisoner deal.