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Brown accused of U-turn on compensation from Libya

In the wake of a row over the release of the Lockerbie bomber, British PM Gordon Brown has pledged to assist IRA victims seeking compensation from Libya, which allegedly shipped explosives to IRA guerrillas in the 1980s and 1990s.

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REUTERS - British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said on Sunday he would support compensation claims against Libya by families of IRA victims who say Tripoli helped to arm the guerrillas.

 

Brown was forced to clarify his policy hastily when campaigners for victims' families accused him of putting trade with Libya before justice following the publication of letters suggesting he feared jeopardising improved relations with the North African country.

 

Opposition Conservatives, tipped to win a general election due by next June, accused Brown of a U-turn and said the prime minister and the government had lost their moral compass.

 

"I desperately care about what has happened to those people who have been victims of IRA terrorism," Brown told reporters after talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin.

 

"We'll appoint dedicated officers in the foreign office and our embassy in Tripoli will accompany the families and their representatives to meetings with the Libyan government to negotiate compensation," he added.

 

"And the first of these meetings is being held in the next few weeks."

 

Britain's relations with Libya are under the spotlight after the early release last month of a Libyan agent convicted of the 1988 Lockerbie airliner bombing in which 270 people were killed.

 

Britain denies pressing the Scottish government to free Abdel Basset al-Megrahi to help improve business ties with Libya, which has Africa's largest oil reserves.

 

The Scottish authorities released Megrahi, terminally ill with prostate cancer, on compassionate grounds, angering the U.S government and relatives of the 189 Americans killed when Pan Am flight 103 expoloded over Lockerbie.

 

SEMTEX LINK

 

The row over ties with Libya, coupled with a rising death toll in Afghanistan have made for a turbulent return to work for Brown after his summer holiday. Britain is mired in recession and the prime minister has only a few months to turn around his poll ratings before the election.

 

Last year campaigners for Irish Republican Army (IRA) victims met Brown seeking cash payments from Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who they say shipped Semtex explosives in the 1980s and 1990s to guerrillas fighting to end British rule of Northern Ireland.

 

Lawyers representing victims' families have evidence the plastic explosives were used in a series of IRA bomb attacks, according to the Sunday Times newspaper.

 

They said Brown's main concern was to not to jeopardise Tripoli's growing trade ties and support for the war on terrorism, a charge his office strongly denied.

 

In two letters addressed to the victims' lawyer Jason McCue last year, released by the prime minister's office earlier on Sunday, Brown said he had not considered it "appropriate" to discuss claims for compensation over arms sent to the IRA.

 

He said growing trade relations were not the "core reason" for his decision, but acknowledged warming trade links did form part of a new relationship with Tripoli.

 

The campaign for cash settlements follows out-of-court deals agreed by Libya with three American victims of IRA bombings.

 

Campaigners and their lawyers welcomed Brown's intervention on Sunday night.

 

However, opposition Conservative foreign affairs spokesman William Hague condemned the government's handling of relations with Libya.

 

"Gordon Brown and the Government he leads have long lost their moral compass and this is just another example of the disastrous mess and muddle in which they find themselves on the Megrahi affair," he said in a statement.

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