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Britain Neutral in 1969 Coup

North Africa Journal, 11 January 2000

Tripoli—Britain rejected an appeal from its old ally, King Idris of Libya, to intervene when Qadhafi led a military coup against him in 1969, the Associated Press reported last Saturday. The king secretly asked then-Prime Minister Harold Wilson to help restore him to power, but Britain’s Labor Party government decided to remain neutral.

Michael Stewart, Britain’s foreign secretary at the time, warned that it would be dangerous and wrong to intervene in the coup, according to files released by the Public Record Office, which unseals records after 30 years.

It seems to us that in this event the sooner we get on terms with the revolutionary government, the greater are the chances of protecting our essential interests in Libya, Stewart noted within days of the coup. Qadhafi, then 27, overthrew Idris while the king was in Turkey for medical treatment. The king died in exile in Egypt in 1983.

Britain’s relationship with Libya deteriorated significantly starting in 1984, when a London policewoman was shot to death by a gunman firing from inside the Libyan Embassy. Britain broke off all diplomatic relations after the shooting. The relationship cooled further after the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in which 270 people were killed. The bombing was blamed on terrorists sponsored by Libya.

Last spring, however, Libya handed over the two Libyan suspects for trial before Scottish judges in a special court in the Netherlands. Libya also agreed to pay compensation for the policewoman’s death. Those moves led to the formal restoration of diplomatic relations between the two nations in December.