Thursday, September 25, 2008

U.S. lawmakers block ambassador to Libya over fund

Thu 25 Sep 2008, 0:36 GMT

By Sue Pleming

NEW YORK, Sept 24 (Reuters) - The Bush administration urged lawmakers on Wednesday to agree to the appointment of a new U.S. ambassador to Libya, which has been blocked until Tripoli puts money into a fund to pay U.S. victims of terrorism.

On Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey put on hold the nomination of diplomat Gene Cretz to become Washington's envoy to Libya until American victims were paid from a fund agreed on last month by both countries.

"Libya has not yet satisfied its obligations to U.S. victims of its terrorist acts and I will object to this nomination's moving forward until those victims receive justice," said Lautenberg, a Democrat.

Under U.S. law, ambassadorial appointments must be cleared by the Senate.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Libya still had obligations it must meet for the fund but that the United States had been assured these would be fulfilled.

"We would like to see the nomination move forward," McCormack said in New York, where Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is attending the U.N. General Assembly.

Libya and the United States signed a deal last month to create a fund that would settle cases involving victims of violence from both sides. The Bush administration hoped it would quickly lead to Cretz's confirmation as ambassador.

"This is a relationship which is changing and evolving and there is certainly work to be done but it has certainly come a long way in the past few years," he said of Libya.

The biggest chunk of the fund -- estimated at close to $1.8 billion overall -- will cover compensation for U.S. victims of Libyan attacks in the 1980s.

American victims covered include those who died in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270 people, and the 1986 attack on a West Berlin disco that killed three people and wounded 229.

It also provides compensation for Libyans killed in 1986 when U.S. planes bombed Tripoli and Benghazi in retaliation for the disco attack. Forty people died, including Gaddafi's adopted baby daughter.

In a landmark visit to Tripoli this month, Rice raised concerns about the fund in public and in private meetings with Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. It was the first visit to Libya by a U.S. secretary of state in 55 years.

Appointing a U.S. ambassador was seen as one of the rewards for Libya giving up its weapons of mass destruction program in 2003, which led to a warming of ties between the former foes.

Relatives of the Pan Am victims welcomed the Senate foreign relations committee's decision.

"The committee's action ... has sent an unequivocal message to the administration and Libya that the Senate will not appoint a U.S. ambassador until Libya has fulfilled the agreement," said a statement from a group of families

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