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US charges bombmaker in Lockerbie blast

lockerbie bomber charges
Wrecked houses and a gash in the ground in the Scottish village of Lockerbie after the bombing of the Pan Am flight in 1988. Photo: AAP
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The US has announced new charges against a Libyan bombmaker in the 1988 explosion of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, an attack that killed 259 people in the air and 11 on the ground.

The charges were announced on the 32nd anniversary of the bombing and in the final news conference of US Attorney General William Barr’s tenure, underscoring his personal attachment to a case that unfolded during his first stint at the Justice Department.

He had announced an earlier set of charges against two other Libyan intelligence officials in his capacity as acting attorney general nearly 30 years ago, vowing that the investigation would continue.

Though Mr Barr had not appeared at a press conference in months, he led this one two days before his departure, as a career bookend.

Mr Barr, previously one of outgoing US President Donald Trump’s closest allies, resigned last week amid growing tensions with Mr Trump.

In presenting new charges, the Justice Department is revisiting a case that deepened the chasm between the US and Libya, laid bare the threat of international terrorism more than a decade before the September 11 attacks and produced global investigations and punishing sanctions.

The case against the alleged bombmaker, Abu Agela Masud Kheir Al-Marimi, is for more theoretical than practical as Masud is not in US custody. It is nonetheless one of the more consequential counterterrorism prosecutions brought by the Trump administration Justice Department.

“At long last, this man responsible for killing Americans and many others will be subject to justice for his crimes,” Mr Barr said.

A breakthrough in the investigation came in 2017, when US officials received a copy of an interview that Masud, an explosives expert for Libya’s intelligence service, had given to Libyan law enforcement several years earlier. It came after he was taken into custody following the collapse of the regime of the country’s leader, Colonel Moammar Gadhafi.

In that interview, US officials said, Masud admitted building the bomb in the Pan Am attack and working with the two other defendants to carry it out.

He also revealed that he had been summoned by a Libyan intelligence official to a meeting in Tripoli and asked whether the “suitcases” were finished.

lockerbie bombing charges
Police at the scene after the 1998 Lockerbie bombing. Photo: AAP

Masud is the third Libyan intelligence official charged in the US in connection with the Lockerbie bombing, but he would be the first to stand trial in an American courtroom.

In 1991, after Mr Barr announced charges against the two other men, Abdel Baset al-Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah, the Libyan government balked at turning them over, sceptical about them receiving a fair trial.

In 1992, the UN Security Council imposed arms sales and air travel sanctions against Libya to prod Gadhafi into surrendering the two suspects.

Libya ultimately turned them over for prosecution before a panel of Scottish judges sitting in a Netherlands court as part of a special arrangement.

Al-Megrahi was convicted while Mr Fhimah was acquitted of all charges.

Al-Megrahi was given a life sentence, but Scottish authorities released him on humanitarian grounds in 2009 when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He later died in Tripoli.

The Pan Am flight exploded over Lockerbie less than an hour after take-off from London on December 21, 1988, en route to New York City and then Detroit.

It wasn’t until 2003 that Gadhafi and Libya accepted responsibility for the Pan Am disaster, with the country reaching a $US2.7 billion compensation deal with the victims’ families.