WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration said Wednesday it will continue to press Libyan rebels to review the case of the convicted Lockerbie bomber but ruled out making the transfer of frozen Gadhafi regime assets contingent on his return to prison.
Getting the money to the opposition is a higher initial priority than handling the case of Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, the State Department said. The former Libyan intelligence agent and the only person convicted in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. The ailing al-Megrahi was released from a prison two years ago and returned to a hero's welcome in Libya and is now reported near death.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton departed Washington on Wednesday night to attend an international conference in Paris aimed at boosting aid to the Libyan rebels.
The conference Thursday will gather top officials from about 60 countries to hear from the rebels what they need to get Libya stabilized and governed.
The Transitional National Council is expected to present a detailed list of requests, topped by access to the billions of dollars in assets of Moammar Gadhafi's government that are frozen around the world. They may also seek short-term loans from the IMF and World Bank, according to U.S. officials. And, while they do not want international peacekeepers, the rebels may seek some kind of civilian U.N. police presence, the officials said.
Clinton hopes to announce in Paris that $1.5 billion in Gadhafi regime assets frozen in the United States has been distributed on behalf of the rebels, officials said. That money, about half of the liquid portion of the more than $30 billion in frozen Libyan assets, was freed up last week when the U.N. Security Council eased sanctions against Libya. European nations are now seeking similar U.N. authorization to release billions more in frozen assets that they hold.
"We have supported the unfreezing of this small, limited amount of money — not so small, $1.5 billion — to begin to meet their immediate humanitarian and governance needs," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said. "So from that perspective, we think it is important both to continue the conversation about Megrahi, but also to help the Libyan people get their money back."
Some lawmakers, including Clinton's former Senate colleague, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., have called on the Obama administration to withhold U.S. support for the rebels until Megrahi is jailed and independently examined by medical professionals to determine his health status. Other lawmakers and at least one Republican presidential hopeful, Mitt Romney, have urged the administration to demand that the opposition arrest and extradite al-Megrahi.
But Nuland said that the Libyan opposition's most important tasks are finishing its apparent victory over Gadhafi, restoring stability and starting a democratic transition. She said the administration would keep up pressure over the al-Megrahi case but would not link it to the return of assets. She also noted that it was Gadhafi, not his foes, who had treated al-Megrahi as a hero.
"We all have to take a hard line, and we have been, on Megrahi and anybody else who has blood on their hands from the Lockerbie bombing, and we will continue to do so," she told reporters.
"We need to give the TNC a chance to do job one, which is to finish the job of ousting Gadhafi and his regime; begin the job of establishing Libya on a democratic path," Nuland said. "And we are very gratified by the fact that they have made clear that they are willing to look into this. We will continue to talk to them about it, and we will certainly make sure that Congress's views are conveyed."
The opposition has pledged to look at the handling of the al-Megrahi case once it has established itself as a fully functioning government.
That is apparently not soon enough for some.
Schumer wrote to Clinton on Wednesday to urge her to raise the al-Megrahi case and make assistance conditional on their cooperation when she sees Libyan opposition officials at the Paris meeting.
"I request that the Department of State condition further assistance to the Libyan Transitional Council, including access to frozen Libyan assets, on the return of al-Megrahi to prison," he wrote. "There is no justifiable basis for the rebels' decision to shield this convicted terrorist."
New York's other senator, Kirsten Gillibrand, and New Jersey Sens. Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg have also made the al-Megrahi case an issue.