LONDON (Reuters) - Britain hailed the defection of Libyan Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa on Thursday as a blow to leader Muammar Gaddafi, while Scottish prosecutors asked to question the former spy chief over the 1988 Lockerbie bombing.
Koussa, a close adviser to Gaddafi for decades, flew into Farnborough Airport in southern England on Wednesday and told British officials he had resigned from the Libyan government.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said Koussa’s decision to flee showed “the desperation and the fear right at the heart of the crumbling and rotten Gaddafi regime,” and called it a “serious blow to Gaddafi’s authority.”
Foreign Secretary William Hague encouraged others close to Gaddafi to follow Koussa’s example and abandon him.
Koussa was talking to British officials at a secret location, but pressure was growing for him to be questioned over the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie in which 270 people were killed.
The Libyan citizen convicted over the attack was freed from a Scottish jail on compassionate grounds in 2009 after talks involving Koussa. The release sparked anger in Washington.
Scottish authorities said they wanted to interview Koussa about the bombing, and families representing some of those who died in the attack said no deals should be done to protect him.
Cameron said Koussa had not been granted immunity and said Scottish police and prosecutors should “follow their evidence wherever it leads.”
Moussa could provide important intelligence about Gaddafi’s inner circle as he faces a revolt in the east of his country and missile strikes from an international coalition including Britain.
A Libyan government spokesman confirmed that Koussa had resigned. “It was his (Koussa’s) personal decision,” Mussa Ibrahim told reporters at a Tripoli briefing.
Libyan rebels, who have suffered military reverses in recent days, took heart from Koussa’s surprise move.
British government officials said Koussa flew to Britain on a private plane and denied Britain had provided the aircraft. He is believed to have come to Britain with his son.
Koussa was the head of the Libyan embassy in Britain between 1979 and 1980 and was expelled by London after statements vowing death for exiled Gaddafi opponents there. He returned to Tripoli to head the Libyan intelligence services.
He was also the architect of a dramatic shift in Libya’s foreign policy that brought the country back into the international fold after years of sanctions.
Saad Djebbar, who served as a legal adviser to Libya on the Lockerbie case and knows Koussa, said he had persuaded Gaddafi to settle the Lockerbie affair and other disputes with the West.
“He developed his own worldwide intelligence connections. I’m sure he had hotlines to the main intelligence services of the world, including (Britain’s) MI6, regarding fighting al Qaeda after 9/11,” said Djebbar, a North Africa expert affiliated to the Chatham House thinktank.
Rebel spokesman Mustafa Gheriani, speaking to Reuters at rebel headquarters in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, said Koussa had blood on his hands, accusing him of involvement in killings and torture in Libya and assassinations of exiled opposition figures.
Additional reporting by Angus MacSwan in Benghazi, Maria Golovnina in Tripoli, William Maclean, Keith Weir and Avril Ormsby in London, Paul Taylor; Editing by Mark Trevelyan