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BP stealing thunder from Cameron's U.S. visit

The Associated Press
Published:   |   Updated: March 21, 2013 at 09:12 AM
WASHINGTON -

On the way to Washington, British Prime Minister David Cameron said he wants to talk about Afghanistan, Middle East peace prospects and the global economy.

Everyone else wants to talk about BP.

Cameron's first trip to Washington as prime minister begins Tuesday and is being overshadowed by anger in the United States over BP's spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the British oil giant's alleged involvement in the decision to free Lockerbie bomber Abdel Baset al-Megrahi from jail last year and send him home to Libya.

Cameron had hoped to use his first official visit to the White House to build his standing as a statesman and develop his relationship with President Barack Obama. Instead, he is being forced to focus on the British government's decision last August to return the cancer-stricken prisoner to Libya on compassionate grounds.

"As leader of opposition, I couldn't have been more clear that I thought the decision to release al-Megrahi was completely and utterly wrong," Cameron told the BBC.

In Tuesday's meeting, Cameron and Obama will discuss a host of pressing issues. Chief among them will be Afghanistan. Britain has been the most crucial U.S. military partner in Afghanistan but is facing inevitable budget cuts and the unpopularity of the war. Cameron has said he wants the country's 10,000 troops out by the time of Britain's next election, which must be held by 2015.

The leaders also are likely to discuss stalled Middle East peace prospects and the global economy. But while both sides are playing down the BP issue, they are acknowledging it is likely to come up. Cameron also is expected to come under questioning on that topic in meetings with congressional leaders.

Cameron will meet Tuesday evening with U.S. lawmakers who have urged an inquiry into BP's lobbying of the British government over al-Megrahi's release. Cameron's Downing Street office said a British government-commissioned inquiry was "not currently under consideration."

The decision to free al-Megrahi was made by Scotland's government, which holds limited powers within the United Kingdom, and not by the previous British government headed by Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Al-Megrahi served eight years of a life sentence for the Dec. 21, 1988, bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed all 259 people aboard, mostly Americans, and 11 people on the ground.

"I have no idea what BP did, I am not responsible for BP," Cameron said. But he insisted that discussions between BP and Brown's administration on a prisoner transfer agreement did not include talks involving the al-Megrahi question.

New York Democrat Charles Schumer, one of four senators who have demanded an investigation, welcomed Cameron's statement on the issue.

"This admission is a first step in getting to the bottom of what could well be a quid pro quo for an oil contract," Schumer said.

BP has acknowledged that it had urged the British government to sign a prisoner transfer agreement with Libya, but stressed it did not specifically discuss al-Megrahi's case during those talks.

Britain's growing diplomatic and business ties with Libya have been under intense scrutiny since al-Megrahi's release. Critics have accused British authorities of putting commercial interests before the families of the 270 victims of the attack.

British officials have insisted the prisoner transfer deal was part of a broader diplomatic effort aimed at furthering efforts to transform Libya from rogue state to Western ally. Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi renounced terrorism and dismantled his country's clandestine nuclear program in 2003.

The U.S. lawmakers asked the State Department last week to investigate whether BP pressured officials as part of efforts to seek access to Libyan oil fields.

Meanwhile, Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, joined calls for an investigation into allegations BP played a lobbying role in al-Megrahi's release.

Hoekstra told CBS's "The Early Show" Tuesday that the families of victims of the 1988 Pan Am Flight 103 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland are owed an explanation of al-Megrahi's release - beyond the stated reason that it was on humanitarian grounds because he was suffering from cancer.

Hoekstra said the decision to set him free must be investigated "in view of allegations there was an oil-for release deal made."

"I don't believe that happened," he added. But Hoekstra also said the British government "has to go forward and prove that it didn't happen."

Speaking to BCC on Tuesday, Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill said he stood by his decision to allow al-Megrahi's release, saying it conformed both to law and to Scottish values.

In a letter sent Saturday to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague said there was nothing to suggest BP had influenced the Scottish government.

"There is no evidence that corroborates in any way the allegations of BP involvement in the Scottish executive's decision to release al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds in 2009, nor any suggestion that the Scottish executive decided to release al-Megrahi in order to facilitate oil deals for BP," Hague wrote.

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