Nelson Mandela told UK not to hold Libya responsible for Lockerbie bombing

Declassified files reveal discussions between Tony Blair and Mandela

Nelson Mandela's role as intermediary in the Lockerbie bombing led to friction with Tony Blair's government. PA
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Nelson Mandela told the UK it was wrong to hold Libya responsible for the Lockerbie bombing, newly released files reveal.

Documents from the National Archives in Kew reveal discussions between former British prime minister Tony Blair and his cabinet and Mr Mandela, who was acting as an intermediary for Libya, after the Lockerbie bombing.

The terrorist attack on board the Boeing 747 bound for New York from London on December, 21, 1988, killed all 259 passengers and crew and a further 11 people in Lockerbie when wreckage destroyed their homes. It was the deadliest terrorist incident to have occurred on British soil.

Files from 2001 reveal a letter from Sir John Sawers, who was then Mr Blair's foreign affairs adviser, to private secretary Sir Mark Sedwill, informing him of the outcome of a meeting between Mr Blair and Mr Mandela.

The meeting followed the conviction in 2001 of Abdelbaset Al Megrahi for the bombing after he stood trial at a specially convened Scottish court in the Netherlands.

Mr Mandela and members of the Saudi royal family had previously helped to negotiate Al Megrahi’s extradition from Libya to stand trial.

Earlier the UN issued Security Council Resolution (SCR) economic sanctions on Libya, including the banning of weapons sales, until it accepted responsibility.

In the meeting between Mr Blair and Mr Mandela on April 30, 2001, Mr Mandela opposed the UN stance.

"Mandela argued it was wrong to hold Libya legally responsible for the bombing," Sir John wrote.

"He had studied the judgment from the trial and was critical of the account the judges had taken of the views of the Libyan defector, even though they had described him as an unreliable witness.

“He had discussed it with Kofi Annan [former secretary general of the United Nations] as he felt the Security Council resolution requiring that [Libya's president Muammar] Qaddafi accept responsibility were at odds with the legal position.

“The prime minister probed Mandela’s approach. We were not insisting that Qaddafi had ordered the Lockerbie bombing. The Libyan state may not be directly responsible but they were still responsible for Megrahi’s actions.”

Mr Mandela was again reminded during the meeting that Al Megrahi had been a member of the Libyan Intelligence Service when he carried out the bombing.

“Our starting point was the SCRs and we were keen to see these implemented. We wanted to open a channel to the Libyans to work out how to do this, but it had proved difficult after Qaddafi had rejected the trial verdict,” Sir John wrote.

“The prime minister said that if Megrahi lost his appeal then presumably Libya would have to come to some arrangement on paying compensation. He thought it would be sensible for Qaddafi to talk to us about this. Mandela did not dispute those points, but it was essential that Qaddafi’s decision to pay compensation should be seen as voluntary and not because he was legally bound to do so.

“While Qaddafi was a very difficult man, he, Mandela, trusted him to fulfil the commitments he made. But if we now insisted he was accountable in law for Lockerbie he would challenge that, and Mandela said he would back him up.”

In a letter dated four days earlier to Sir John from Sir Mark, it revealed that the British thought Mandela believed it had reneged on its promise to lift sanctions on Libya in exchange for Al Megrahi’s extradition.

They feared that Mr Mandela had promised Libya more than had been agreed.

“Mandela does not accept our position that Libya must meet the requirements of the Security Council resolutions before sanctions are lifted. He believes vehemently that we have reneged on our promises.

“Mandela is at best suffering from selective memory and a basic misunderstanding of international law. At no point did we give undertakings that we would gloss over some of the SCRs or that sanctions would be lifted. It is likely he promised Libya more than we had agreed.”

It was not until May 2003 that Libya accepted responsibility for the bombing.

It had earlier agreed to set up a $2.7 billion fund to compensate families of those killed in the explosion.

Al Megrahi was the only man convicted over the attack and was sentenced to life until his release on compassionate grounds in 2009 after a cancer diagnosis. He died in Libya in 2012.

This month a Libyan man, Abu Agila Masud, was accused of making the bomb that destroyed the flight and was taken into US custody.

Updated: December 30, 2022, 12:01 AM