WASHINGTON — The U.N. Security Council on Friday voted to lift economic sanctions against Libya, 15 years after a bomb plot directed by a Libyan agent destroyed Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.
By a 13 to 0 vote, the council rewarded Libya for its pledge to renounce terrorism, its belated acceptance of responsibility and its promise to pay as much as $2.7 billion to the families of 259 people killed aboard the jetliner and 11 Lockerbie residents who died on the ground.
The United States and France abstained from the vote, which followed a last-minute agreement by Libya to increase payments to the relatives of victims of a second bombing — a 1989 attack that killed 170 people aboard a French UTA airliner.
For Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, the U.N. action represents another small step toward respectability after nearly two decades of international isolation. The vote sets the stage for Libya's more difficult quest of ending separate U.S. sanctions that prevent American companies from doing business in the oil-rich North African nation.
U.S. authorities are skeptical about trusting Gaddafi, a target of U.S. bombs during the Reagan administration. Analysis suggests Gaddafi has delivered on his promise to halt support for terrorists, but the Bush administration is concerned by his backing of African rebel movements and his alleged pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.
"Our decision must not be misconstrued by Libya or by the world community as a tacit U.S. acceptance that the government of Libya has rehabilitated itself," said James Cunningham, deputy U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. He told council members that Libya is "actively developing" chemical and biological weapons.
Libyan state radio cheered Friday's vote as a "victory" and declared the formal lifting of sanctions means the opening of "another page" in its relations with the outside world. Gaddafi badly wants to expand trade and attract foreign investment, particularly from the United States.
The practical effects of the U.N. vote, however, are minimal.
The Security Council suspended its embargo on Libya four years ago after the Tripoli government turned over two suspects for trial by a Scottish court. That cleared the way for non-U.S. companies to work in Libya, but American sanctions continue to have significant backing in Congress and among administration arms control figures.
U.S. officials, contemplating careful tests of Gaddafi's intentions, have said the Libyan leader must demonstrate "tangible changes in behavior" if he wants to build closer relations with the United States.
The Americans have vowed to be wary.
The council's decision triggers the release of $4 million to each of the Pan Am 103 families. Private lawyers negotiated the payment with Libyan representatives as U.S. and British government officials worked with their Libyan counterparts on a statement of responsibility demanded by the United Nations.
Despite hopes among the Pan Am relatives that Libya would accept blame and offer details about the motivations and logistics behind the Dec. 21, 1988, explosion, the Tripoli government limited its admission to a statement of legal responsibility for the actions of its intelligence agent, Abdel Basset Ali Megrahi, now serving a life sentence.
The Scottish court that convicted Megrahi and acquitted a Libyan airline agent said the "clear inference" of evidence is that "the conception, planning and execution of the plot ... was of Libyan origin."
The Pan Am relatives would receive another $4 million if U.S. sanctions were lifted and $2 million more if Libya were removed from the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism.
If no progress is made on those fronts, Libya could pay each family an additional $1 million and reclaim the remaining $1.35 billion in escrow in a Swiss bank account.