British Prime Minister David Cameron will meet US senators to discuss concerns over the release of Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, as he sought to prevent the issue overshadowing his first official visit to America as PM.
A request for talks with a group of politicians pushing for a renewed investigation into the case was initially turned down, with the Cameron camp saying the Prime Minister could not fit them into a “very full schedule” in Washington.
But a spokesman later said Mr Cameron recognised the strength of feeling of the four, who represent New York and New Jersey, and had now invited them for a discussion at the British ambassador’s residence tonight.
Announcing the change of plan as Mr Cameron flew into the US for a two-day tour, the spokesman said: “The Prime Minister recognises the strength of feeling and knows how important it is to reassure the families of the victims. We are happy to see them face to face and find time in the diary,”
The White House has indicated that last summer’s release and claims that oil giant BP played a part in it are likely to come up when Mr Cameron joins the US president at the White House for talks earlier in the day.
Mr Cameron has already pledged his administration will “engage constructively” with a planned Senate foreign relations committee hearing later this month on the Megrahi release – which he says was entirely a matter for the Scottish Executive.
And he insisted today that there were no differences between himself and Mr Obama on the issue.
“When I see President Obama this week we have a very clear common agenda: succeeding in Afghanistan, securing economic growth and stability at home and across the world, fighting protectionism,” he wrote in the Wall Street Journal.
“And on one issue in particular, Lockerbie, let me be absolutely clear there’s no daylight between us.
“I have the deepest sympathies for the families of those killed in the bombing. Abdel Baset al-Megrahi was found guilty of murdering 270 people. They weren’t allowed to go home and die in their own bed with their relatives around them.
“I never saw the case for releasing him, and I think it was a very bad decision.”
BP – already facing huge pressure in the US over the Gulf of Mexico oil spill - has confirmed it spoke to the previous Labour government about the “negative impact on UK commercial interests” caused by the slow progress on a prisoner transfer agreement with Libya,
But it denies any involvement in the decision by the Scottish Executive to release Megrahi, who was given three months to live after being diagnosed with terminal cancer – and the British government has told the US there is “no evidence” to suggest it had.
The majority of the 270 people killed in the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie in 1988 were American.
Megrahi is the only person convicted of involvement in the atrocity and his return to a hero’s welcome in Tripoli triggered fury in the US, which has only been heightened by his continued survival as the months passed.
Strategy in Afghanistan in what Mr Cameron has called a “vital” year for the Nato-led military operation is likely to top the agenda as ministers meet in Kabul for a high-level conference to discuss the next steps.
Meetings are also scheduled with vice-president Joe Biden, defeated Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain and senior figures in the US Congress - with a briefing on Afghanistan at the Pentagon expected tomorrow.
In his article, Mr Cameron urged Britons not to fret about the state of the transatlantic “special relationship” with the USA.
He said he was “unapologetically pro-America” and believed the US had proved itself a “formidable force for good” but vowed to be “hard-headed and realistic” in his dealings with Washington.