July 13, 2010 8:40 pm

Senators question BP’s Libyan links

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Democratic senators in the US are calling for an investigation into BP’s business interests in Libya, accusing the British oil company of being part of a deal to free a convicted terrorist in return for oil licences.

BP has faced a slew of Congressional investigations following its catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the majority of which have centred on its safety record in the US and whether it knowingly cut corners.

However, with BP still trying to cap the leaking well and a permanent fix weeks away, US politicians are increasingly looking for other ways to target the company.

The Senate foreign relations committee is set to consider a request from Frank Lautenberg, a Democratic senator from New Jersey, for an investigation into whether BP helped secure the early release of Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, the Lockerbie bomber freed by Scottish authorities last year.

Mr Lautenberg, citing recent news reports that BP is about to start drilling for oil in the Gulf of Sidra off Libya, has publicly questioned whether the company encouraged Mr Megrahi’s release to help close the deal during negotiations in 2007. “It is shocking to even contemplate that BP is profiting from the release of a terrorist with the blood of 189 Americans on his hands,” Mr Lautenberg wrote in a letter to the committee. “The families of the victims of PanAm flight 103 deserve to know whether justice took a back seat to commercial interests in this case.”

BP on Tuesday said that it was a “matter of public record” that it had discussed with the UK government its concern at the slow progress in concluding a prisoner transfer agreement with Libya.

“Like many others we were aware that a delay might have negative consequences for UK commercial interests, including ratification of BP’s exploration agreement,” said Andrew Gowers, a BP spokesman. “However, we did not express a view about the specific form of the agreement, which was a matter for the UK and Libyan governments, or make representations over the al-Megrahi case, which was solely a matter for the Scottish executive and not for the UK government.”

Mr Megrahi was granted “compassionate” release from a Scottish jail after a doctor said he had cancer and had only three months to live. But the doctor now says Mr Megrahi, who is back in Libya, might live for 10 years.

Mr Lautenberg’s latest letter follows a request from him, two New York senators – Kirsten Gillibrand, Charles Schumer and New Jersey senator Bob Menendez – asking the British government to investigate the decision to release Mr Megrahi. Many of the Americans killed in the 1988 bombing of the Pan Am flight were from New York or New Jersey.

“There is clear reason to believe that this terrorist was released based on false information about his health,” Mr Schumer said in the letter. “This is especially galling to those of us who believed he shouldn’t have been released even if it had been true that his death was imminent.”

In a response, Nigel Sheinwald, British ambassador to Washington, wrote that the decision to release Mr Megrahi was made after the Scottish parliament conducted an inquiry into Mr Megrahi’s release earlier this year and “took place in accordance with normal good practice”.

With its shares halving in value since the April 20 oil spill, BP has been looking to raise new capital, courting potential investors in the Middle East, including in Libya, among others.

BP won a contract to explore for gas and oil in Libya in 2007.

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