WASHINGTON – British Prime Minister David Cameron on Tuesday turned aside U.S. calls for an investigation into the release of the Lockerbie bomber by Scotland and said there was no indication that oil giant BP had swayed the controversial decision.
Both Cameron and President Barack Obama, who met with him at the White House, condemned the release of Libyan bomber Abdel Baset al-Megrahi from a Scottish prison.
Still, Cameron said the release was not the doing of the British government nor, apparently, the result of any lobbying by BP to win oil concessions from Libya. Rather it was a decision by the government of Scotland on compassionate grounds, he said.
“It was the biggest mass murder in British history, and there was no business letting him out of prison,” Cameron said.
Said Obama: “I think all of us here in the United States were surprised, disappointed and angry.”
Cameron said at a joint White House news conference with Obama that any role that BP may have played in the Lockerbie release “is a matter for BP to answer.” But he went on to say there was no evidence that Scotland’s decision was influenced by BP.
At issue is the British oil giant’s efforts to win ratification of a deepwater oil deal off Libya’s coast.
Cameron said he and Obama were in “violent agreement” that the release was a mistake.
However, they did disagree slightly over the issue of an investigation. Several U.S. senators have proposed a probe, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has called on both British and Scottish officials to review the situation.
Obama said it was important that all facts be released to the public, and Cameron said he agreed. But, Cameron added, “I don’t think there’s any great mystery here. … I don’t need an inquiry to tell me it was a bad decision. It was a bad decision.”
Cameron also said he understood American anger over the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
He said the spill that began April 20 with an explosion aboard a BP-leased oil rig that claimed 11 lives was “a catastrophe” for the environment, the fishing industry and for tourism in the region.
Cameron said he agreed with Obama that “it is BP’s role to cap the leak, clean up the mess and pay the appropriate compensation.” He said that the recent temporary capping of the well by BP was “a step in the right direction.”
At the same time, Cameron said that BP, formerly known as British Petroleum, “is an important company to both” the United States and Britain, noting it employs thousands of workers on both sides of the Atlantic.
It was the British prime minister’s first visit to the United States since taking office ten weeks ago. However, he and Obama met one-on-one last month on the sidelines of a world summit in Toronto and discussed some of the same issues.
There was one item on which the two leaders basically agreed to disagree, however: the vastly different approaches to budget-cutting the two countries are taking amid a fragile economic recovery.
Cameron’s coalition government has imposed stringent spending cuts, while the Obama administration favours eventual deficit reduction — but does not want to slam on the stimulus brakes too quickly for fear of jeopardizing a fragile recovery and plunging the U.S. back into recession.
Obama said there would be differences in how different countries “approach it tactically and at what pace.”
He also said there was “no closer ally and no closer partner” than Britain. He reaffirmed the “truly special relationship” between the two nations.
“We speak a common language_most of the time,” Obama joked.
A key item of their private discussion was Afghanistan, where Britain has the most troops serving of any NATO nation after the United States. But Cameron has said he wants his country’s 10,000 troops out by the time of Britain’s next election, which must be held by 2015.
The prime minister participated in a working lunch with Obama and Vice-President Joe Biden, whom he met earlier for breakfast at the British Embassy.
Cameron had hoped to use his first official visit to the White House to build his standing as a statesman and develop his relationship with Obama. Instead, he was forced to focus on the British government’s decision last August to return the cancer-stricken prisoner to Libya on compassionate grounds.
Al-Megrahi served eight years of a life sentence for the Dec. 21, 1988, bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 as it flew over Lockerbie, Scotland, en route to New York. The bombing killed 270 people, almost all of them Americans. He was released and returned to Libya in August 2009 after doctors said he had only three months to live, but a doctor now says he could live for another decade.
Cameron said that, while Scotland is part of Britain, Scotland had the authority to make the release decision under the limited powers it has on its own — and that the British government of his predecessor, Gordon Brown, did not participate in the decision.
Cameron will meet Tuesday evening with U.S. lawmakers who have urged an inquiry into BP’s alleged lobbying of the British government over al-Megrahi’s release.
Libya’s proven oil reserves are the ninth-largest in the world, but vast areas remain unexplored. The country has been working to bring in foreign oil companies and investors after U.S. and U.N. sanctions were lifted several years ago.
The U.S. lawmakers asked the State Department last week to investigate whether BP pressured officials as part of efforts to seek access to Libyan oil fields.
Cameron was to complete his two-day visit on Wednesday in New York, with meetings with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.