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US Reviews Libya's Apparent Reversal of Minister's Lockerbie Comment - 2004-02-26


The Bush administration says it is examining a Libyan government statement that aims to end a dispute that erupted Tuesday when the country's prime minister appeared to deny Libyan responsibility for the 1988 Pan Am jetliner bombing over Scotland. A U.S. official says an initial look at the document indicates Libya has made the retraction demanded by Washington.

Officials here are still examining the brief statement from Libya's official news agency but a senior U.S. diplomat told reporters it appears that the Libyans "have done what they needed to do" to quell the controversy.

The Bush administration canceled an announcement Tuesday lifting some U.S. sanctions against Libya after the country's prime minister, Shokri Ghanem, said in a radio interview his country had paid compensation in the Pan Am affair to "buy peace" and not because it was guilty of the terrorist attack.

The United States demanded a retraction. Wednesday's statement, in the name of the Libyan foreign ministry, said Libya stands by a letter to the U.N. Security Council last August in which it said it "accepted responsibility" for the actions of its officials who were behind the airliner attack.

It said recent statements contradicting or casting doubt on that are inaccurate and regrettable.

Libya had promised the clarification after a strong U.S. diplomatic protest, and Secretary of State Colin Powell told reporters as he launched the State Department's annual global human rights report Wednesday, he expected the matter to be cleared up quickly.

"I think that this is just a little blip that will go away and we'll be back on track with our policy toward Libya," he said.

The Bush administration had been on the verge of lifting a more than two-decade-old ban on travel to Libya by U.S. citizens, a first step toward normal relations after Libya agreed to scrap its nuclear weapons program in December.

The 1988 downing of the Pan Am jetliner over Lockerbie, Scotland killed 270 people, most of them Americans.

Under diplomatic pressure and international sanctions Libya in 1999 handed over two intelligence agents suspected in the attack, one of whom was later convicted by a special Scottish court sitting in the Netherlands and the other acquitted.

Last August, to end U.N. sanctions, Libya admitted responsibility and agreed to pay up to $2.7 billion in compensation to families of the Pan Am victims.

There was no indication when the announcement on ending the travel ban would be rescheduled. It was to have been be coupled with the lifting of some travel-related financial sanctions and an invitation for Libya to open a diplomatic "interests section" in Washington.

U.S. officials have cautioned that a restoration of full relations is a long way off, and that Libya must still, among other things, meet terms for being removed from the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism.