Cablegate: Megrahi Returns to Libya Accompanied by Saif Al-Islam
PP RUEHBC RUEHDE RUEHDH RUEHKUK RUEHROV
DE RUEHTRO #0685/01 2331114
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
P R 211114Z AUG 09
FM AMEMBASSY TRIPOLI
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 5183
INFO RUEHEE/ARAB LEAGUE COLLECTIVE
RUEHLO/AMEMBASSY LONDON 1132
RUEHFR/AMEMBASSY PARIS 0804
RUEHRO/AMEMBASSY ROME 0573
RHEHAAA/NSC WASHINGTON DC
RUEHTRO/AMEMBASSY TRIPOLI 5727
C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 TRIPOLI 000685
DEPT FOR NEA/MAG AND EUR/WE
E.O. 12958: DECL: 8/21/2019
TAGS: PREL PGOV ASEC CASC UK LY
SUBJECT: MEGRAHI RETURNS TO LIBYA ACCOMPANIED BY SAIF AL-ISLAM
REF: TRIPOLI 663 TRIPOLI 00000685 001.2 OF 002 CLASSIFIED BY: Joan Polaschik, CDA, U.S. Embassy Tripoli, Department of State. REASON: 1.4 (b), (d)
1.(C) Summary: Convicted Pan Am 103 bomber Abdel Basset al-Megrahi returned home to a warm welcome at Tripoli's Mitiga Air Base August 20 at around 2045hrs. Accompanied by Qadhafi's son and potential successor, Saif al-Islam al-Qadhafi, Megrahi appeared frail as he emerged from a private plane owned by quasi-independent Air Afriqiyah. Libyan Government representatives were notably absent from the homecoming and reportedly hastily removed a much larger throng of supporters following POTUS' statement critical of Megrahi's return. Although Libyan local press coverage of Megrahi's return was low-key, a concurrent huge youth rally in downtown Tripoli -- technically unrelated to Megrahi's return -- created the perception of a hero's welcome and certainly played to Qadhafi's own domestic equities. Megrahi appears to have gone directly from Metiga Air Base to his home, where he may have met Muammar Qadhafi. The Libyan Government has not publicly responded to POTUS' call for Megrahi to remain under house arrest. There was no indication of anti-American or anti-Western sentiment in the day's events. End Summary.
2.(SBU) Saif al-Islam al-Qadhafi emerged from a private plane owned by Libya's quasi-independent Afriqiyah Airlines at Mitiga Air Base (former U.S. Wheelus Air Base), at 2045 local time on August 20, wearing a fez and a white traditional Libyan outfit. As he exited the plane, he supported Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, raising his hand and acknowledging Megrahi's family and a large crowd awaiting his arrival. The crowd of about 100 people, mostly men, hailed Megrahi's return and carried Libyan and Scottish flags and the ubiquitous press photo of a young Megrahi. Notably, Megrahi was not greeted by Libyan Government officials. In Saif's remarks to the press upon arrival, he noted "our efforts have succeeded," citing evidence of Megrahi's innocence, and thanking the Scottish Government for its courageous decision. The arrival coincided with a text message to all Libyana mobile phone network (one of two major carriers in Libya) subscribers announcing the "release of the national hero Megrahi," lauding him as the man who sacrificed himself so that Libya could have sanctions lifted. Saif's television station "Al Mutawassit" was the only Libyan channel given rights to broadcast Megrahi's return. [Note: Embassy sources report that local satellite networks did not carry the station, and only those with international satellite receivers were able to access the broadcast. End note.]
3.(C) An AP reporter who had been bussed into Metiga Air Base -- along with other international correspondents -- to cover Megrahi's return told us today that the Libyan Government appeared to have dramatically shifted gears for its planned welcome for Megrahi following POTUS' statement on Megrahi's return. The international press corps was held on a bus for more than three hours and not allowed access to the tarmac to cover the return. The AP reporter said that he observed the Libyan Government hastily removing "thousands" of people who had gathered to welcome Megrahi while the Libyan Government kept the plane closed and waiting on the tarmac for a more subdued welcome scene. The GOL reportedly limited the crowd to approximately 100-200 youth movement members (those seen on TV wearing matching shirts and hats). The AP reporter believes that the youth movement representatives were allowed to remain on the scene as a nod to Saif al-Islam's involvement in the return.
4.(C) At the same time Megrahi was landing at Metiga, a crowd of thousands of Libyan youth gathered on Green Square in the center of downtown Tripoli for the occasion of the "Fourth Annual Youth Movement," sponsored by the Qadhafi International Charity and Development Foundation (QDF), chaired by Saif al-Islam Qadhafi. Embassy contacts who attended the rally reported a heavy security presence and said that participants were expecting Saif to deliver remarks, as he does annually, at the event. Neither participants nor event organizers made linkages between the Megrahi release and the rally. Embassy contacts report that some participants did not realize that Megrahi had been released from prison. Attendees were not allowed to carry cell phones into the rally grounds and would not have received the "Libyana" message of Megrahi's release until after the event. The event, for which crowds of youth began to gather at around 1900hrs, ended in an anti-climatic fashion at around 2300hrs, without the anticipated speech by Saif al-Islam. Independent website "Libya al-Youm" described Saif's absence as "strange," although QDF Director Sawani had told us August 16 that Saif al-Islam did not plan to attend the rally (reftel). In an August 21 telephone conversation with the Charge, QDF Executive Director Yusuf Sawani declined to comment TRIPOLI 00000685 002.2 OF 002 on Saif's return to Libya with Megrahi or on the August 20 rally, telling us tersely and repeatedly that "everything that happened was televised."
5. (C) Although rumors are swirling that Libyan leader Muammar al-Qadhafi met Megrahi at some point after his return, we are not able to confirm these reports. The Libyan press reported that Qadhafi had been looking at economic projects in Sebha -- Megrahi's hometown -- on August 19, and Libyan Government officials told the UK Ambassador (who had been seeking a meeting with Qadhafi to deliver a message from PM Brown on this issue) that Qadhafi had not returned to Tripoli by 1830 local time on August 20. We assume that Qadhafi stayed in Sebha to greet Megrahi in his hometown but do not yet have any information to verify this assumption. Local press has not yet mentioned any interaction between Muammar Qadhafi and Megrahi.
6.(SBU) Local press did not report on the U.S. position to Megrahi's release or on President Obama's calls for Megrahi to remain under house arrest. Rather, state-owned television station "Al Jamahiriya" and Libyan news agency "JANA" reported that Libya was "crowned" by Megrahi's release and return home from Scotland. "JANA" noted that "the position of the Jamahiriya that al-Megrahi should be released since he was a political hostage has attracted widespread international support," citing statements made in the past by the Arab League, African Union, and the Non-Aligned Movement. Notably, Libyan state-owned television did not carry live coverage of Megrahi's return and covered the return only during late-night news broadcasts, well after the actual event.
7.(C) Comment: The Libyan Government appears to be trying to manage the optics of Megrahi's return for two different audiences: the U.S. and Libya's own domestic constituencies. By keeping Libyan Government officials away from Megrahi's return at Metiga Air Base, hastily removing the assembled throngs, and limiting live domestic coverage of the event, the GOL may believe and argue that it technically has stuck to its pledge that the welcome would be "low-key." Yet Saif al-Islam's role in Megrahi's return, coupled with the huge --albeit technically unrelated -- rally in downtown Tripoli, sends an undeniable message of Qadhafi family (and hence Libyan Government) involvement in and feting of Megrahi's return. Qadhafi may well have felt that this second message was important for his own domestic political considerations.
8.(C) Comment continued: As far as the Embassy is aware, Megrahi was transported directly to his home after his arrival. The government has not publicly responded to POTUS' call to maintain Megrahi under house arrest. As August 21 marks the first day of Ramadan, we suspect government officials will keep a low-profile during the day, although evening television programming -- widely watched during Ramadan -- may reveal more information about the Libyan Government's posture. We will continue to monitor and report on the situation. End Comment. POLASCHIK