NEW YORK -- U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said yesterday that "important progress" has been made toward persuading Libya to turn over two suspects wanted in the 1988 bombing of a Pan American flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, that killed 270 people.
Annan's office issued the cautiously optimistic statement after Saudi Arabia and South Africa said in separate announcements that what South Africa called a "common understanding" had been reached by their envoys with Libyan leader Col. Muammar el Kadafi.
Annan is looking forward to the "speedy conclusion of this matter," according to the statement issued by his office.
Though the diplomatic impasse has appeared to be on the brink of solution several times, Kadafi has always balked. Hence, the statements issued from Pretoria, Riyadh and the U.N. headquarters in New York were hopeful but restrained.
State Department officials in Washington declined to comment yesterday, saying that they were waiting for more information. But White House officials remained skeptical, noting that Kadafi had always found reasons to pull back from a deal before.
Nonetheless, the statement issued by the United Nations suggested that a breakthrough had been achieved. It was released after separate statements from Johannesburg and Riyadh and after a meeting late Friday between Annan and Rihad Massoud, the deputy chief of mission of the Saudi Embassy in Washington.
Saudi and South African diplomats had asked Annan's help in securing Libya's agreement to turn over the two Libyans for a trial at The Hague, in the Netherlands, before a court of Scottish judges. On Dec. 5, Annan traveled to Libya and met with Kadafi to discuss the Libyan leader's reservations about the transfer.
Diplomats said that Kadafi had expressed concern about whether the two Libyans would be treated and tried fairly, and whether the United States would permit the lifting of sanctions against Libya that have been imposed since 1992, in part for its failure to hand over the suspects.
The diplomats said that the secretary-general assured the Libyan leader that U.N. resolutions would be followed.
According to a resolution adopted by the Security Council in August, as soon as the Security Council is informed that the two suspects have arrived in the Netherlands, sanctions against Libya are to be "suspended immediately."
Ninety days after that, the sanctions are to be formally lifted when and if the Security Council is assured by the secretary-general that Libya is no longer supporting terrorism.
A U. N. official said that United Nations lawyers are attempting to draw up a legal document describing the agreement and understandings reached by the South African and Saudi envoys who have met several times with the Libyan leader.
Earlier this month, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to Washington, and Professor Jakes Gerwel, director general of the office of the South African president, Nelson Mandela, warned Kadafi in Libya that the United States and Britain were committed to stiffening the sanctions if Libya failed to turn over the suspects.
In Washington, U.S. officials had said that the United States and Britain would press for an oil embargo and other, stiffer sanctions against Libya if Kadafi did not comply with U.N. resolutions calling upon Libya to turn over the suspects, Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah.
Pub Date: 2/14/99