US senate moves to restore diplomatic ties with Libya

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Washington moved closer to full resumption of diplomatic relations with Tripoli yesterday after the US Senate passed legislation to create a compensation fund for families of the victims of Libyan-sponsored bombings.

By Demetri Sevastopulo in Washington

While the House must also approve the measure, the unanimous Senate vote eases the path for the US and Libya to complete a tentative deal that resolves outstanding claims by US citizens against Tripoli for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie and the 1986 attack on a Berlin disco.

Sean McCormack, State department spokesman, said the legislation would “allow the United States and Libya to finally close the book on a contentious period in our relationship and to look to the future. This deal and the legislation that’s part of that deal at root allows these families to get the compensation that they’ve been seeking in an expeditious manner.”

The US resumed diplomatic ties with Libya in 2006 following the decision by Muammer Gaddafi, the Libyan leader, to abandon his weapons of mass destruction and long-range missiles in addition to renouncing support for terrorism.

Washington recalled its ambassador to Tripoli in 1972, and closed its embassy in 1979 following attacks by mobs on the diplomatic mission. It placed Libya on its list of state sponsors of terrorism in 1979, and relations deteriorated further after the Lockerbie bombing.

While the 2006 move ended three decades of cool relations between the countries and opened the prospect of US companies operating in Libya, the path to full normalisation became caught up in a compensation dispute. Congress blocked the State department from sending an ambassador to Tripoli until Libya paid funds that the families of the victims of Pan Am 103 claimed were owed under a previous deal.

“The Pan Am 103 families strongly applaud the Senate’s overwhelming bipartisan support for the legislation and a US-Libya deal certified by the secretary of state,” said Kara Weipz, spokesperson for the Families of the Victims of Pan Am 103. “We strongly urge the resolution’s swift passage by the House of Representatives so justice can be fulfilled.”

The State department previously resisted pressure to become involved in negotiating a settlement with the Libyan government, but came under pressure from Congress to act.

“What changed was the idea that we wanted to try to see that these families got the just compensation . . . you saw a number of different attempts at trying to bring closure to the chapter . . . there were a number of attempts at that. None of them quite got there.”

The Senate measure would restore sovereign immunity to Libya – preventing families of the victims from bringing lawsuits – and end pending lawsuits in US courts, once Tripoli paid the required compensation into the fund.

The Financial Times

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