By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 10, 2004; Page A01
PARIS, Jan. 9 -- Libya formally agreed Friday to pay $170 million
in compensation to the families of people killed when a French
airliner blew up over the Sahara more than 14 years ago. The deal
was the latest step by Moammar Gaddafi, the Libyan leader, to
try to end his country's long international isolation and shed
his image as one of the principal sponsors of anti-Western terrorism
in the 1980s.
In an accord signed at a Paris law office after years of negotiations,
Libyan representatives admitted no responsibility for the 1989
downing of UTA Flight 772, which exploded over Niger en route
from Brazzaville, Congo, to Paris, scattering debris over 50 square
miles of desert. But the Gaddafi Foundation, a nominally private
charity headed by Gaddafi's son, Saif Islam Gaddafi, agreed to
give families $1 million for each of the 170 people who were aboard
A French court ruled that Libyan agents destroyed the DC-10 airliner
with a bomb. Western intelligence agencies concluded that the
bombing was intended as retaliation for French military aid to
the government of Chad, which at the time was fighting Libyan-supported
The compensation is to be paid in four installments over the
next six months, and the first $42.5 million was transferred today.
The money is in addition to $34 million that Libya paid to the
French government in 1999 in connection with the flight.
The dead were from 17 countries, including the United States;
Bonnie Barnes Pugh, wife of the U.S. ambassador to Chad, was among
them. France had the largest number of victims, 54, and took the
lead in keeping the case alive before the United Nations.
Still, UTA 772 had become known among victim groups here as "the
forgotten flight," because the case never received as much
attention as the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie,
Scotland, nine months earlier. That attack killed 270 people,
most of them Americans. An international court later convicted
a Libyan intelligence agent.
The French government was technically not a party to Friday's
agreement, signed by the Gaddafi Foundation and representatives
of the families, a French group representing victims of terrorism
and a French state-run bank that will handle the transactions.
But French officials view closure of this case as allowing them
to begin normalizing relations with Libya.
That was underscored by the presence here of the Libyan foreign
minister, Abdel-Rahman Shalqam, who met later in the day with
French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin. The two sides promised
to work to restore bilateral ties. "All of our relations
will benefit from a new dynamism from today, this new stage that's
opening," de Villepin told reporters.
Shalqam called the deal "an important accord that opens
the way to new perspectives," and said he hoped for a "progressive
normalization" of relations between Tripoli and Paris.
The settlement came three weeks after Libya announced that it
would halt efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction and
would open the country to international weapons inspections. Gaddafi
has also promised to launch a campaign to persuade other Middle
Eastern countries, including Iran, to give up nuclear ambitions.
But in the 1980s, the man known in Libya as "Brother Colonel"
became the number one nemesis of the Reagan administration, which
saw him as a prime sponsor of world terrorism. U.S. warplanes
bombed the country in 1986 after explosives blamed on Libyan agents
killed two U.S. soldiers and a Turkish woman at a nightclub in
West Berlin. The Libyan economy has faltered under years of international
After the downing of the UTA flight, a French investigating judge,
Jean-Louis Bruguiere, spent more than eight years reconstructing
the bombing. He traveled to Libya in 1996 and met with Gaddafi.
Bruguiere concluded that the plane was blown up by a plastic explosive
known as pentrite that was smuggled aboard the plane in a suitcase.
He used the remains of detonator wires to trace the bomb back
to Libyan intelligence agents.
In March 1999, a French court in Paris convicted six Libyans
in absentia -- including Gaddafi's brother-in-law, Abdallah Senoussi,
and several leading Libyan intelligence officers -- and sentenced
each to life in prison. But Libya maintained that the men were
innocent and that it had nothing to do with the bombing, and it
refused to hand over the suspects.
Nonetheless, in July 1999, Libya paid the French government $34
million in compensation for the UTA flight, part of which went
to families of victims. Last year, the families called for additional
payment after Libya agreed to pay far more -- $2.7 billion, or
$10 million per victim -- in connection with the Lockerbie bombing.
To pressure Libya, the French government held up a vote at the
United Nations on lifting sanctions.
Saif Islam Gaddafi, 34, said in a recent interview in the French
newspaper Le Figaro that the then-pending compensation agreement
for the UTA flight "was just part of an overall settlement
Amounting to $1 million per victim, the package is still far
below what Lockerbie families will get. But a spokesman for the
UTA families said the difference will not be as great after lawyers'
fees and U.S. government taxes are subtracted from the Lockerbie
"This shows that Libya is changing, has changed," said
Guillaume Denoix de Saint-Marc, a spokesman for the families,
who lost his father in the bombing. "We're happy with this."
In Brazzaville, capital of Congo, a spokesman for the families
of the 49 Congolese victims also said he was satisfied with the
settlement, according to the Associated Press. But in Paris, a
lawyer claiming to speak for the families of a dozen Congolese
victims said "it is out of the question to accept less than
the $10 million paid for the Americans."