British classified documents publication – “When Craxi forewarned Gaddafi of attack on family in the 80s”
West Berlin’s La Belle nightclub was a popular haunt for American soldiers in April 1986, when a bombing by Libyan agents killed two US servicemen and a Turkish woman, as well as leaving 229 others injured.
Secret British government files released on Friday have shed light on what happened next as Ronald Reagan’s US administration sought vengeance on Libya’s leader Muammar Gaddafi, who they held responsible for the attack.
Denied the right to fly over French, Spanish and Italian airspace, as well as the use of European continental bases, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher allowed US bombers based in the UK to attack targets in Libya’s capital Tripoli.
American warplanes had to take a detour over the Atlantic Ocean and through the Straights of Gibraltar, adding more than 2,000 kms each way and requiring multiple refuelling from tanker aircraft.
Forewarned by a telephone call from Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi, Gaddafi and members of his family left their residence in the Bab al-Azizia compound moments before the air strikes began.
But 60 Libyans died in the attack. Among them, according to reports at the time, was Gaddafi’s adopted infant daughter Hana, although reports in 2011 raised questions about accounts of her death.
The need to keep close to leaders in the Gulf has been a constant for British governments and Britain’s foreign intelligence service, MI6, in particular. But relations with other leaders in the Middle East and North Africa have been very different.
Saddam Hussein, considered a British and US ally during the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s, became, after the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the subsequent Gulf War, an enemy the British government was only too eager to eventually help topple in 2003.
Gaddafi offers another example; an authoritarian leader once considered an enemy who became a Western ally in the “war on terror”, only to fall out of favour once again when he responded to the 2011 revolution against his decades-long rule with violent force.
In the mid-1980s, Gaddafi was a notorious figure in the UK who smuggled arms to Irish Republican Army (IRA) militants fighting the British army and loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland and waging a bombing campaign on the British mainland.
In 1984, a Libyan intelligence agent shot dead a British police officer, Yvonne Fletcher, from inside the Libyan embassy in London.
But things changed. As the 20th century gave way to the 21st, Prime Minister Tony Blair used Gaddafi’s decision to abandon his nuclear and chemical weapons programme to sign lucrative oil and gas contracts with Britain’s former enemy, culminating in the 2004 “Deal in the Desert”.