Blood money

May 30, 2002

IN THE HISTORY of state-sponsored terrorism, Libya's offer to pay $2.7 billion or $10 million for each victim of the 1988 midair explosion of Pan Am Flight 103 is unprecedented. But by itself, the proposed settlement of a 1996 civil suit - worked out by lawyers for the victims' families and for the Libyan government - is an insult to the 270 lives that were taken. And the United States is right to treat the proposal as unworthy of a formal response at this time.

The Libyan offer seems to stem more from the North African pariah state's need for profitable relief from U.S. and U.N. economic sanctions than from a desire to confirm a significant change in the politics of Col. Muammar el Kadafi, Libya's erratic leader since 1969.

It is telling that the deal, worked out in a luxurious Paris hotel, is structured as purely a business matter: Libya would pay 40 percent of the $2.7 billion if the United Nations lifts its sanctions on trade, arms sales and commercial flights, another 40 percent if the United States lifts its economic and trade sanctions, and the remaining 20 percent if the United States takes Libya off its list of states that sponsor terrorism.

Payment of compensation by Libya for the crash over Lockerbie, Scotland, has been long sought, and it meets the second of four conditions set by the United Nations when it enacted its sanctions in 1992. The first of these four was met when Libya produced two intelligence agents to stand trial for exploding the Boeing 747. In January of last year, one was found guilty of murder; the other was acquitted.

But the last two U.N. conditions have not been met - Libya taking responsibility for the Lockerbie deaths and fully disclosing everything it knows about the explosion.

The lawyers who worked out this settlement are indicating that Libya may own up to its role in the 270 deaths, perhaps in a process furthered at a meeting set for next week in London between the U.S. and Libyan governments. But without such a statement of complicity, even some of those who would receive the $10 million payments are reacting negatively - calling the proposed compensation, in the words of the father of one victim, "blood money."

Libya, indeed, may be changing its stance. In the last few years, it "appears to have curtailed its support for international terrorism," concludes a recent U.S. State Department report. For example, Mr. Kadafi publicly condemned the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States and since then has repeatedly denounced terrorism. But Libya may still have contacts with some terrorist groups and may be working on producing biological weapons.

There's plenty of room for skepticism here - for believing that Libya is trying to buy its way out of international economic isolation, rather than fully evolving out of state-sponsored terrorism. Its oil exports already bring in an estimated $14 billion a year or more; in that light, $2.7 billion may be a cheap price for access to advanced technology and export markets.

The United States soon may find out if there is more to the Libyan offer than just money. Absent that, this is a reprehensible deal.

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