BP, Lockerbie cloud Cameron's White House visit

20th July 2010, Comments 0 comments

British Prime Minister David Cameron's first White House talks Tuesday were at risk of being overshadowed by a row over the freed Lockerbie bomber and the political fallout of the BP oil spill.

Cameron also went into his first meeting with President Barack Obama in Washington since taking office in May, fiercely defending US and British strategy in the Afghan war, amid skepticism about NATO withdrawal plans.

Obama was rolling out the full White House treatment for Cameron, with Oval Office talks, a working lunch and an East Room press conference, after being accused of dealing brusquely with former British leader Gordon Brown last year.

Cameron had hoped to use the talks to redefine the US-British relationship, which was in lockstep under leaders like George W. Bush and Tony Blair, but seemed awkward at times between Obama and Brown.

"The US-UK relationship is simple: It's strong because it delivers for both of us," Cameron wrote in the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday.

"The alliance is not sustained by our historical ties or blind loyalty. This is a partnership of choice that serves our national interests."

But in the run-up to Tuesday's talks, Cameron was forced to tackle a string of political brush fires -- none of which were caused by his government, but which threatened to tarnish the tone of his visit.

Downing Street announced that Cameron had changed his mind and would see four US senators furious about the Scottish government's release of convicted Lockerbie bomber, cancer-stricken Libyan Abdelbaset Ali Mohmet al-Megrahi.

Cameron has said the release of Megrahi on compassionate grounds by the devolved government in Scotland, which has a separate legal system to England and Wales, was a mistake.

But the senators are demanding transparency, having seized on reports -- denied by BP and the British government -- that the firm pushed for Megrahi's release to safeguard a lucrative oil exploration deal with Libya.

Megrahi is the only person convicted of the 1988 bombing of a US Pan Am jumbo jet over the Scottish town of Lockerbie in which 270 people were killed. He was freed from jail last year, but is still alive.

"I agree that the decision to release al-Megrahi was wrong. I said it was wrong at the time ... I just happen to think it was profoundly misguided," Cameron told the NPR News show "Morning Edition" on Tuesday.

"He was convicted of the biggest mass murder in British history, and in my view, he should've died in jail."

The White House said before Cameron arrived that it did not believe that its showdown with British-based BP over the Gulf of Mexico oil spill would detract from the Cameron-Obama talks.

But the energy giant is high on the list of public enemies in the United States, following America's worst environmental disaster.

Various Obama aides and politicians have referred to the firm by its old name of "British Petroleum," stoking nationalistic feelings, though the president has rarely, if ever done so.

"Of course, BP has got to do everything necessary to cap the oil well, to cleanup the spill, to pay compensation," Cameron told NPR, echoing the Obama administration's line.

"I've met with BP, I know they want to do that, and they will do that."

Cameron has also called, however, for BP to be kept solvent despite multi-billion dollar costs, in the knowledge that its stock is the backbone of many British pension funds.

The leaders were also certain to discuss strategy in Afghanistan, after the international community earlier endorsed sweeping Afghan government plans to take responsibility for security by 2014.

Both the US and British governments, under rising political pressure from an increasingly unpopular war, have insisted that plans to withdraw western combat troops from Afghanistan are realistic.

Obama, who mandated a surge of US forces last year, has said he wants to start bringing home at least some troops in July 2011. Cameron wants British combat troops home within five years.

But critics have expressed doubts that the newly trained Afghan army will be in any shape to keep the peace by 2014.

"I think it is realistic," Cameron insisted on NPR.

"Remember, 2014 is four years away, so there's quite a lot of time to train up that Afghan army, and that, to me, is the most important thing.

"In the end, we're not in Afghanistan to create the perfect democracy or the perfect, society," he said, adding that the mission was to stop the return of terrorist training camps to the country.

© 2010 AFP

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