Gaddafi and the UK – a troubled history

The British-Libyans who are opposing Gaddafi have faced a history filled with terrorism, assassinations and violence.

Shortly after Benghazi fell to Libyan rebels Omar al Sodani was arrested for being a senior member of Gaddafi’s Revolutionary Committee. Unlike the other prisoners that were captured (Gaddafi soldiers and alleged mercenaries) Omar’s history goes back decades and links him to one of the most notorious events in UK-Libya relations.

Whilst he denies the claim, the rebels believe Omar was inside the Libyan embassy when, on the 17th April 1984, someone fired a sub-machine gun from within the building at an anti-Gaddafi protest taking place outside in St James’s Square. 11 people were injured and 25-year-old PC Yvonne Fletcher, who was policing the demonstration, was killed.

Alan Wooller was a metropolitan police officer in 1984 and was among those who had been called to St James’s Square. He had worked alongside Yvonne Fletcher in the early 1980s.

The shooting led to tense 11 day siege of the embassy. I spoke to a man who was a Detective Constable with the Metropolitan Police’s anti-terrorist branch at the time.

It was finally decided by the upper levels of government to allow the Libyan embassy staff to leave the county. Their diplomatic status and concerns over Britain’s embassy in Tripoli meant that none of the staff or their bags could be searched; this meant that no-one was held accountable for the shooting, a decision which has since proved controversial.

Guma El-Gamaty, 54, is now the UK co-ordinator for the Benghazi based National Transitional Council, the political front of the uprising. In 1984 he was one of the organisers of the demonstration outside the Libyan embassy and was there when the shots were fired. He spoke to me about the repercussions of the shooting for Gaddafi’s opponents.

Whilst extreme, this shooting wasn’t an isolated incident. Early in the morning of the 11th March 1984 a bomb ripped apart a car outside an apartment block in Whalley Range, Manchester. Two hours later a second bomb that had been placed closer to the building exploded, injuring several people inside.

The bombs had been planted by a hit-squad, sent to the UK by Gaddafi to eliminate political opponents in exile overseas. One of those opponents was Hisham Ben Ghalbon, co-founder and secretary of the Libyan Constitutional Union, one of the main opposition groups to Gaddafi’s regime at the time.

The bombing took place against an existing backdrop of political attacks on UK soil. Four years earlier three Libyans who opposed Gaddafi had been murdered and in 1984 a wave of bombings took place, mostly targeting Arabic newspaper kiosks in London which sold opposition literature.

This bombing campaign was stepped up by a pro-Gaddafi terrorist group in Manchester that wanted to assassinate Hisham and his brother, as together they had founded the Libyan Constitutional Union. Gaddafi had placed Hisham, his brother and their families on a death list because of their attempts to shine a light on his rule. 

 

For Gaddafi’s opponents in the UK like Hisham, Yvonne Fletcher’s tragic death would ultimately save them. After such an inconceivable action, Margaret Thatcher’s government had no option but to crackdown on Gaddafi’s agents within the country. After months of round the clock police protection, out for fear of another assassination attempt, Hisham could finally breathe easily.

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