UNITED NATIONS – A Scottish court's ruling that a high-ranking Libyan intelligence agent was responsible for the Lockerbie bombing has bolstered claims that Tripoli authorities bear responsibility for the attack.
U.S. and British officials say that link to terrorism could have implications on when U.N. sanctions against Libya — suspended two years ago — could be permanently lifted. And it could strengthen lawsuits seeking compensation from Libya by relatives convinced that Col. Moammar Qaddafi and his government were ultimately to blame for the 270 dead.
"This one individual did not plan and finance the bombing of a 747," said Joanne Hartunian of New York, whose daughter Lynne was killed in the Dec. 21, 1988, bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland. "It was state-sponsored."
Libyan officials repeated Wednesday that their government had nothing to do with the blast and denied that the government was implicated by the verdict. They argued that Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi was tried and convicted of murder as an individual — not as a Libyan official.
"It is against just this man, not the state," Libya's foreign minister, Abdel-Rahman Shalqam, told Associated Press Television News in Tripoli.
When asked whether Libya would take the blame for the bombing, as required by U.N. Security Council resolutions, he said: "Never."
But U.S. and British officials said the verdict announced Wednesday does implicate the government and that Libyan authorities must accept responsibility in order to have U.N. sanctions permanently lifted.
The sanctions include an air travel and arms embargo and a ban on the sale of some oil-related equipment. They were suspended in April 1999 after Libya turned over two men for trial at a special Scottish court sitting in the Netherlands.
In their 82-page verdict, the three Scottish judges said they accepted evidence that al-Megrahi was a member of the Libyan intelligence service, "occupying posts of fairly high rank."
They convicted Al-Megrahi but found there wasn't enough evidence to convict a second defendant, Lamen Khalifa Fhimah.
"The verdict established quite clearly the personal responsibility of an individual who is a Libyan government security service agent," said U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher. "The Libyan government, as a whole, therefore, bears responsibility for the actions that were taken."
British Ambassador Jeremy Greenstock said the Libyan government must issue a statement accepting responsibility to comply with U.N. resolutions.
Nevertheless, the United States and Britain did agree two years ago that the aim of the trial was not to "undermine the Libyan regime."
The two governments signed off on a letter containing that assurance as a way to persuade the Libyan leader to turn the two defendants over for trial.
The assurances angered many relatives of the victims, who believed the promises meant the investigation would never reach those most responsible.
But Anthony Cordesman of the Washington-based Center for Strategic International Studies, said a criminal trial of this kind could never have directly implicated the Libyan leadership since no government would divulge all it knew about Libya's alleged links to terrorism.
"There's absolutely no question that the Libyan government is to blame," he said. "But a trial is not a way of identifying when nations are guilty of supporting terrorism, conducting covert operations or engaging in asymmetric warfare."
"Governments, if they have any skill at all ... will always construct buffers between themselves and their agents," said Cordesman.