Obama to host British PM on first White House visit

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British Prime Minister David Cameron meets US President Barack Obama at the White House Tuesday for the first time since taking power, with stricken oil giant BP and Afghanistan set to top the agenda.

Cameron and Obama have already built a close rapport -- they swapped bottles of beer at last month's G20 summit in Toronto after a World Cup football bet, weeks after Cameron took office as head of a coalition government in May.

But the "special relationship" could be tested over BP's role in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, plus a linked controversy over the release from a Scottish jail of a Libyan who killed 270 mainly US citizens in a 1988 plane bombing.

In an interview ahead of the two-day trip, Cameron said he and Obama would talk about British-based BP, which has been sharply criticised in the United States for its handling of the country's worst-ever environmental disaster.

"President Obama and I have a very good relationship, we get on well," Cameron told Time magazine.

"Of course we will discuss BP. It is an important company not just for Britain, it's an important company for America as well. It employs tens of thousands of people in the US, as it does in the UK."

Cameron has warned against the "destruction" of BP, saying it should "remain a strong and stable company" for the sake of employees and people with pension funds invested in the company in both countries.

BP faced fresh pressure last week when the US Senate's Foreign Relations Committee said it would hold a hearing into the release of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmet al-Megrahi, who was convicted in 2001 of blowing up a Pan Am flight over the Scottish town of Lockerbie.

They have also charged that BP may have pressed authorities in Britain to free Megrahi -- given three months to live due to prostate cancer at the time of his release on compassionate grounds -- to protect a lucrative oil deal with Libya.

Megrahi is now living in Libya and a doctor who examined him was recently quoted as saying he could live for another 10 years.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague told US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Saturday that there was no evidence linking BP to the Scottish government's decision to free Megrahi.

Hague also stressed that Cameron's government believes Megrahi's release was a "mistake". The State Department last week described the move as an "affront".

The meeting between Cameron and Obama comes following the deadliest-yet month for NATO-led international forces in Afghanistan, to which the US and Britain are the two largest contributors, in June.

Their talks will come as a major international conference takes place in Kabul on the development strategy for rebuilding Afghanistan, attended by figures including Clinton.

Both leaders inherited the Afghan war from predecessors and are eyeing troop withdrawals through a strategy of securing key towns and cities while training up local security services.

Obama wants to start pulling US personnel out from July next year, while Cameron says British combat forces should be coming home within five years.

Despite close ties, particularly over the war, experts have warned that talk of a "special relationship" between the US and Britain is becoming outdated as the US focuses on higher strategic priorities, particularly in Asia.

This did not stop the two leaders speaking warmly of ties between their two countries in Toronto, which they said they hoped would get stronger in years ahead.

Cameron will be hoping for a warmer reception from Obama at the White House than his predecessor Gordon Brown got when they first met there last year.

Obama was accused of snubbing Brown by presenting him with a set of DVDs that would not even work in a British player.

© 2010 AFP

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