A group of US senators have requested a meeting with David Cameron during his visit to Washington to discuss their concerns about the release of Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, it emerged tonight.
But a Downing Street source said Mr Cameron was unable to meet the group because of the tight schedule for his two-day US visit, taking in talks with President Barack Obama at the White House and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in New York.
The source said that Mr Cameron “understands” the senators’ concerns. Before leaving for the US today, he said that the decision to release Megrahi on compassionate grounds last year was “completely and utterly wrong”.
Four senators from New York and New Jersey are calling for an investigation into oil giant BP’s role in lobbying for a prisoner transfer agreement between the UK and Libya in order to smooth the way for a massive exploration deal.
The issue threatens to overshadow Mr Cameron’s first visit to the US as Prime Minister.
The White House this evening said that Mr Obama’s talks with the PM were likely to touch on the issue of the Lockerbie bomber’s release and whether BP played any part in it.
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 of 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.
The Downing Street source said: “Mr Cameron has a very full schedule and at this very late stage nothing can be added to it.
“However, the Prime Minister fully understands the concerns of these senators and he is meeting representatives of the Senate during his visit to Washington.”
Mr Cameron has pledged his administration will “engage constructively” with a planned Senate foreign affairs committee hearing later this month on the Megrahi release.
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 ever 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.
As part of concerted efforts to calm the row ahead of the visit, Foreign Secretary Willian Hague wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last night insisting there was no evidence of BP involvement.
Asked on BBC Breakfast this morning whether the company had lobbied for Megrahi’s release, Mr Cameron said: “I have no idea what BP did, I am not responsible for BP.”
The PM added: “All I know is 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.”
Mr Cameron and Mr Obama last met at the G8 and G20 summits in Canada last month, and Downing Street said Mr Cameron was keen to build on “excellent discussions” they enjoyed there.
In an interview last week, he said he believed in the special relationship between the two countries but acknowledged that Britain was its “junior partner”.
“I think it is an important and long-standing relationship and I hope that we bring things to that relationship,” he told Time Magazine.
The two leaders will discuss Afghanistan as ministers gather in Kabul for a major conference which is expected to endorse a 2014 target for the full transfer of security to the Afghan forces.
Four British servicemen were killed in a 24-hour period over the weekend and Mr Cameron said he wants British combat troops home by 2015.
Along with the world economy, the Middle East and Iran, their talks are also likely to focus on the fallout from the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig in April – the US’s worst environmental disaster.
Mr Obama was outspoken in his attacks on BP and the need for them to pay for the devastation caused – with the PM previously criticised for failing to stand up for the British firm.
After talks with BP chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg last week, Mr Cameron said he would stress the importance of the firm’s success to both country’s economies.
As well as the White House meeting, Mr Cameron is scheduled for talks with vice president Joe Biden and other senior figures from Congress – where he is likely to face a second front of questions involving BP.
On Wednesday, Mr Cameron will be briefed on Afghanistan operations at the Pentagon before travelling to New York to meet business leaders, talks at the UN and a dinner hosted by the city’s mayor Michael Bloomberg.