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Revelations about Libya fail to shed light

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New revelations about Switzerland's dealings in its crisis with Libya have left the situation more confusing than ever.

This content was published on September 10, 2009 - 20:51

The Swiss foreign ministry has confirmed media reports that one of the two businessmen barred from leaving Libya for over a year has close ties with the family of the Libyan prime minister.

It also said that it had held discussions last year with Edwin Bollier, a Swiss businessman with ties to Libya and a supporter of convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi.

Bollier had proposed to the Swiss government that Megrahi should be allowed to come to Switzerland if he were to be exonerated on appeal.

Swiss President Hans-Rudolf Merz flew to Tripoli on August 20 and apologised for the arrest in Geneva in July 2008 of Hannibal Gaddafi, a son of the Libyan leader, which triggered the row with the North African country.

Merz returned with a letter signed by Libyan prime minister Al-Baghdadi Ali al-Mahmoudi, which he presented as a promise to allow the two businessmen to return home before the end of August.

The Libyans say this was a misunderstanding.

Links to prime minister

Confusion has increased in recent days after information about Rachid Hamdani, one of the two businessmen, appeared in some Swiss newspapers. The reports were based on leaks from the foreign affairs commission of the House of Representatives.

The reports say that Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey revealed in closed-door meetings in February that Hamdani was a regular guest at Mahmoudi's home. Hamdani holds dual Swiss and Tunisian citizenship.

On Thursday Hamdani's wife accused the press of spreading misinformation about her husband. She rejected media reports that he had been able to visit Tunisia during the past year.

In an interview published on the website of the French-language Le Temps newspaper, she said he had not been allowed to leave the country despite the fact that he was in need of medical attention.

Her interview did not mention his alleged links with Mahmoudi.

In the dark

The confusion about hostages reflects the complexity of the Libyan system, where even those in the Libyan administration are often in the dark.

The country's leader, Moammar Gaddafi, does not hold any official position, yet all decisions depend on him, says Reinhard Schulze, a professor of Islamic studies at Bern University.

"[Mahmoudi] tries to have influence by creating decisions which, he supposes, have the favour of Gaddafi, but in fact nobody knows what Gaddafi really wants," he told swissinfo.ch.

"Until Gaddafi says yes or no, [Hamdani] may play tennis with the prime minister but he won't be able to leave the country."

Two factions are jostling for power in Libya: on the one hand the old guard, and on the other the "reformers", who are backed by the foreign minister and the prime minister.

Whoever takes the decision which turns out have Gaddafi's favour is the one who will gain in political influence, Schulze said.

"Switzerland has become the hostage of the internal Libyan political situation."

Lockerbie twist

In another twist to the story, Bollier revealed on Swiss television on Wednesday that he had proposed to the foreign ministry that Switzerland should agree to take in Megrahi.

Bollier hoped that this would help to defuse the tension between the two countries.

Bollier figured in the investigation following the Lockerbie bombing but was never charged. Timers made by Bollier's company, Mebo Telecommunications, were found in the wreckage at Lockerbie.

Bollier does not believe that Libya was involved in bringing down Pan Am Flight 103. He says Libya was not the only country to which the timers were supplied.

The foreign ministry confirmed that it had discussed the matter with Bollier but said it had reached the conclusion that there was no legal basis for such an offer.

Schulze believes that making a link with the Megrahi case would only complicate matters and would not help the businessmen.

Megrahi, who is dying of prostate cancer, was released last month on compassionate grounds from the prison in Scotland where he was serving a life sentence.

In order to be allowed to return to Libya, he withdrew the appeal he had lodged against his conviction.

Julia Slater, swissinfo.ch

Swiss-Libyan crisis

July 15, 2008: Hannibal Gaddafi and his wife Aline are arrested at a Geneva hotel after police receive reports that they have mistreated two servants.

After two nights in detention, the couple are charged with inflicting physical injuries against the servants. The Gaddafis are released on bail and leave Switzerland.

July: Two Swiss nationals are arrested in Libya. Swiss businesses are forced to close their offices and the number of Swiss flights to Tripoli is cut.

July: Bern forms a task force and sends a delegation to Libya. Two Swiss nationals arrested in Libya are released from jail.

September: The two servants decide to withdraw their complaint against Gaddafi and his wife after receiving compensation.

January 2009: Talks are held in Davos with Seif al-Islam Gaddafi, one of the Libyan ruler's sons. A diplomatic delegation travels to Tripoli.

April: Hannibal and his wife, along with the Libyan state, file a civil lawsuit against the Geneva authorities in a Geneva court.

May: Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey visits Libya, reporting "significant progress".

June: Libya withdraws most of its assets from Swiss bank accounts.

August: Merz, who meets the Libyan prime minister but not Gaddafi, apologises in Tripoli for the arrest.

September: Libya says Merz's expectation that the hostages would be released by September 1 were based on a misunderstanding.

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