Britain frantically tried to stop Nelson Mandela commenting on the trial of two Libyans accused of blowing up a passenger plane over the Scottish town of Lockerbie at a 1997 leaders’ summit held in the country, newly released documents have revealed.
The South African president backed a plan for the suspects to be tried in a country outside the UK and US, but any attempt to raise the issue at a meeting of the 54-nation Commonwealth heads of government meeting (CHOGM) would have been “disastrous”, British officials said.
Other papers released showed how Mr Blair and then US President Bill Clinton bonded and how the prime minister grappled with plans to tackle Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.
The regime of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya was blamed for the atrocity and placed under sanctions by the US and the UK. Qaddafi, who in 2008 styled himself King of Kings of Africa, was assiduous in attempts to offset Western pressure with African allegiances.
Libya was a patron of Mr Mandela's African National Congress (ANC) during the anti-apartheid struggle. Qaddafi was killed in 2011 after uprisings across the Middle East, deposing him from his 42-year unchallenged rule. During the uprising, South Africa attempted to play a mediation role after a Nato-led bombing campaign was launched to protect civilians targeted by the regime.
As the Commonwealth Summit loomed the UK’s new prime minister at the time, Tony Blair, was pressed into writing to Mr Mandela to ensure there was not an open split on the issue. A week before the event Mr Blair tried to dissuade the liberation hero from discussing the topic during the meetings.
“We have a lot of other things to talk about,” Mr Blair wrote. “But I would welcome a further private discussion when we meet next week.”
Two Libyan intelligence agents were accused of putting a suitcase bomb on Pan Am flight 103 which blew up over Scotland in 1988 as it headed to New York, killing 270 people on the plane and ground.
British officials wanted to try the two men in Scotland but Libya refused to hand them over for trial, prompting the UN to impose an air and arms embargo on Tripoli. Mr Mandela offered South Africa as a neutral trial venue but was rebuffed.
British officials learnt two weeks before the summit that Mr Mandela was travelling to the conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, via Libya, and warned Mr Blair’s office of the “sensitive situation”, according to official papers released by the UK’s national archives on Tuesday.
Mr Mandela travelled by road from Egypt for his visit to Libya, which meant that sanctions were not breached, said a foreign office official. “Nevertheless it may attract embarrassing press attention particularly with CHOGM taking place in Scotland, where feelings on Lockerbie run high,” the official wrote.
The note to Mr Blair’s office added: “The Foreign Secretary thinks it is important that we point out the sensitivity of this issues to him and extinguish any thoughts he may harbour of stimulating a collective discussion on Lockerbie in the CHOGM plenary.”
The attempt to silence Mr Mandela failed and his call for a third-country venue for the trial dominated coverage of the leaders’ meeting.
Mr Mandela told a news conference that he had not raised the issue with Mr Blair. “I have never thought in dealing with this question that it is correct for any particular country to be the complainant, the prosecutor and the judge at the same time. Justice cannot be said to be done in that situation,” he said.
A compromise was reached with the two men standing trial three years later at a special temporary Scottish court in the Netherlands.
Former Libyan intelligence officer Abdelbaset Al Megrahi was found guilty in 2001 of mass murder and sentenced to life in jail with a minimum term of 27 years. The second man was acquitted.
Megrahi was released from prison in 2009 on compassionate grounds because he was terminally ill with cancer. He died in Libya in 2012. His family has continued to fight to clear his name.
Details of the diplomatic exchanges are included in a file of released documents that cover the first months of Mr Blair’s 10-year premiership.