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Libyan oil official: Lockerbie wasn't part of BP talks

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Libya's oil minister denies BP link
  • A key Libyan oil official says freeing the Lockerbie bomber had no link to oil deal
  • Shokri Ghanem says politics played no role in negotiating the drilling deal with BP
  • The oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is not deterring Libya's interests in working with BP

(CNN) -- A top Libyan oil official on Friday denied allegations of an agreement to free the Lockerbie bomber in exchange for bolstered BP commercial interests in the country.

Britain and Libya had sparred over whether Abdelbeset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi should be included in a prisoner transfer agreement the two nations were negotiating. Under the agreement, Libyan prisoners in Britain would be transferred to Libya to serve out their sentences.

British officials and BP said the oil company's interests -- mainly, seeking a huge deal to drill for oil in Libya -- were a consideration in those talks.

In the end, al Megrahi was included in the transfer agreement, but he was never transferred to a Libyan jail. Instead, he was freed on what officials in Scotland said were humanitarian grounds separate from the agreement.

Days after Britain and Libya concluded the transfer agreement last year, Libya and BP signed a deal that the company called the biggest financial commitment for exploration that an international energy company had ever made to Libya.

Both Britain and BP have denied that al Megrahi's release played any role in the deal.

"I was leading the negotiations on BP," said Shokri Ghanem, chairman of the National Oil Corp. of Libya, in an interview Friday with CNN's Richard Quest.

"I was the person who was negotiating the technical [points] and the whole agreement" for the oil company to drill off the Libyan coast, he said. "I never spoke on any political [issues], not did I accept any political interference."

Ghanem insisted Friday that the oil agreement was ratified in 2007 -- two years before al Megrahi's release.

Earlier Friday, Britain's ambassador to the United States, Nigel Sheinwald, said the government believes it was wrong to let al Megrahi out of prison in August 2009 and return to his native Libya, but it was a decision taken by the Scottish executive, not the British government. Scotland has its own government that is responsible for most of the day-to-day issues there, including the justice system.

Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill freed al Megrahi in August after doctors concluded he had terminal prostate cancer and three months to live.

The ambassador's statement came a day after the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee announced it will hold a hearing July 29 to examine whether BP may have played a role in lobbying for al Megrahi's release.

Ghanem dismissed the announcement as political posturing. "The U.S. can do any hearing they want, this is their business," he said. "But we're a sovereign country. ... American Congress can do whatever they want, but senators, they have to give the impression they are U.S. senators."

Al Megrahi, now 58, was convicted of involvement in the December 21, 1988, bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie. The attack killed 270 people, including 11 on the ground. He was the only one ever convicted in the case.

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BP said it did express concern to the British government in late 2007 about the slow progress of a prisoner transfer agreement that Britain and Libya were negotiating, saying it could have had a "negative impact" on British commercial interests. However, BP says it was not involved in any talks with either the British or Scottish governments about al Megrahi's release specifically.

Scotland also denied any contact with BP over the al Megrahi case. It said his release was on compassionate grounds and was separate from the prisoner transfer agreement. The fact that al Megrahi is still alive does not change the Scottish government's thinking about his release, a spokesman for the Scottish government said.

"All over the world, when you have a commercial agreement with some country and if you have some other problems, you as a businessman or investor you may be concerned -- but this does not mean you make the agreement to help in this or to help in that," Ghanem said. "But of course you would love always to see that the relations are good between your country and the country of the investor."

Ghanem also backed up BP over the recent oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, cause by an explosion on a rig leased by BP. He said the massive spill didn't deter his country's drilling interests with the oil giant, and that it shouldn't keep others from investing in BP.

"In a way, the world is lucky it happened with BP and did not happen with a small company [which doesn't] have enough money and resources to do and to implement what BP did."

He added: "God forbid, if you have a plane crash, you don't stop flying."