LONDON - The row over Britain's relations with Libya took a new turn on Sunday as Gordon Brown denied he had shied away from pressing Tripoli to compensate families of IRA victims who say Libya supplied the guerrillas with arms.
Lawyers and campaigners for the victims' families accused Prime Minister Brown of putting trade before justice after letters emerged suggesting he feared rocking improving relations.
They said it was evidence Brown was more concerned about jeopardizing Tripoli's growing trade ties and support for the war on terrorism, a charge his office strongly denied.
In two letters addressed to the victims' lawyer Jason McCue last year, released by the prime minister's office on Sunday, Brown said he had not considered it appropriate to discuss claims for compensation over arms sent to the IRA.
He also said growing trade relations were not the core reason for his decision, but acknowledged warming trade links did form part of a new relationship with Tripoli.
Brown's government is already under fire for denying it pressed Scotland's devolved government for the early release of the man convicted of the 1988 Lockerbie airliner bombing, in the interests of fostering better relations with Tripoli.
Last year campaigners met Brown seeking cash payments from Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who they say shipped Semtex explosives in the 1980s and 1990s to republican bombers fighting to end British rule of Northern Ireland.
Lawyers representing victims' families have evidence the plastic explosives were used in a series of IRA bomb attacks, according to the Sunday Times newspaper.
The campaign for cash settlements follows out-of-court deals agreed by Libya with three American victims of IRA bombings.
In a letter sent to McCue, dated October 7 2008, Brown said: The UK government does not consider it appropriate to enter into a bilateral discussion with Libya on this matter.
In the same letter, seen by Reuters, he said Libya had already answered questions about involvement with the IRA and it would be strongly opposed to reopening the thorny issue.
Those answers satisfied the then UK government and Libya has made it clear to us that they consider the matter closed.
Brown went on to emphasize that growing trade ties were a consideration, but were not the main basis for not entering into direct negotiations.
WAR ON TERRORISM
While the UK-Libya relationship does include trade, bilateral cooperation is now wide-ranging on many levels, particularly in the fight against terrorism, Brown said.
I believe it is in all our interests for this cooperation to continue.
In a letter Brown sent to McCue a month earlier, Brown set out much the same argument.
In the letter dated September 11, 2008 he said the relationship with Libya had been fundamentally transformed and that it was in the UK's interests for that to continue.
He also repeated that questions about Tripoli's involvement with supplying explosives had been answered.
The prime minister's office on Sunday categorically denied suggestions Brown was fearful of upsetting lucrative oil deals.
As the prime minister makes absolutely clear in his letter to Mr McCue, trade considerations were not a factor in the government's decision, a spokeswoman for his Downing Street office said.
She said Brown was sympathetic to the case put forward by the families of victims of IRA atrocities and met a group representing them last year.
(Editing by Andrew Roche)