Claims that Prince Andrew held secret ‘detailed discussions’ over the release of the Lockerbie bomber with Colonel Gaddafi’s son were at the centre of a simmering diplomatic row last night.
Libyan officials yesterday claimed the Prince held off-the-record talks with Saif al-Islam Gaddafi days after Libya formally applied for convicted terrorist Abdelbaset Al Megrahi’s release.
But last night, despite the Libyan assertions, Buckingham Palace denied any meetings or discussions had taken place between the Prince and Mr Gaddafi on the issue.
The alleged Royal intervention in the controversial affair came while the Prince was on an official Foreign Office-sponsored trip to Algeria in May to open Britain’s new embassy in the country.
Libyan government officials say Colonel Gaddafi’s son – who would later give the terrorist a hero’s welcome on his return to Tripoli – made a special visit to Algiers to discuss the developments with the Prince, Britain’s special representative on trade and investment.
The pair are said to have become friends after Andrew made several official and unofficial trips to Libya. Mr Gaddafi has also been a guest at Windsor Castle.
The Prince’s formal role is to help secure trade and investment deals for Britain and he was in Algeria at the behest of the Foreign Office.
The involvement of the Prince would raise new questions about the deal done with Libya to free Megrahi, the man convicted of bombing Pan Am Flight 103.
But told of the Libyan claims the Prince had played a key role in the affair, Buckingham Palace last night issued a categoric denial.
A spokesman said: ‘We can categorically say that no meetings or discussions took place between the Duke of York and Mr Gaddafi in Algiers on any issue. The Duke has only met Mr Gaddafi on two occasions and was unaware they were in Algiers at the same time.’
He added: ‘It is categorically untrue that the Duke of York met Saif Gaddafi in Algeria.’
Libya formally applied for Megrahi’s release on May 5 and the British Government has maintained that the decision to free him, which has led to widespread protests from the relatives of those who died in the atrocity and from the US Government, was made on compassionate grounds by the Scottish Justice Minister, Kenny MacAskill.
Gordon Brown has insisted that the release of Megrahi, who has terminal cancer, was in no way linked to any trade deals, including a multi-billion-pound oil exploration contract with Libya secured by BP.
But, according to the Libyan officials, two weeks after Libya’s formal application for the bomber’s release, 37-year-old Saif, Colonel Gaddafi’s heir apparent, flew to Algiers to meet Andrew and lobby him over the issue.
The pair are said to have stayed in the same government guest house in the capital and to have had a long informal discussion on the implications of Megrahi’s release on Anglo-Libyan relations.
A senior government official in Tripoli said: ‘Prince Andrew has an excellent relationship with Saif al-Islam, and the pair discussed all important matters relating to their two countries, including the fate of Megrahi, who was then in prison in Scotland. This was quite normal, and entirely in order with diplomatic protocol.
‘Saif al-Islam wanted to see Andrew. That’s why he visited Algiers at the same time.
‘Debate about the incarceration of our brother Megrahi was dominating Libya at the time, and it was entirely right that it should have been discussed with a senior representative of the UK. The Algeria meeting was a perfect opportunity for views to be aired.’
Last night the Foreign Office insisted it had ‘no knowledge’ of the meeting between the Prince and Mr Gaddafi in Algiers.
But an Algerian source who met both Andrew and Saif al-Islam in Algeria in May said: ‘It certainly appeared curious that the pair were in Algiers at the same time, but there was a good reason – they were meeting for detailed discussions about all aspects of Anglo-Libyan relations in a neutral venue.’
Andrew has met the Libyan leader’s son at least four times since November 2007; twice on unofficial visits to Libya, once at a ‘chance’ meeting in Tunis and last February on the official visit.
Andrew arrived in Algeria on Sunday, May 17, and stayed in the capital for three days. The national newspaper Liberte noted at the time ‘the two curiously simultaneous visits by Prince Andrew and Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi to Algiers’.
It added: ‘All are led to believe that the two visits come under the same logic.’