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LONDON: The British government will this week go to unprecedented lengths to stop a renegade counter-intelligence officer, David Shayler, from making his most devastating claim yet: that the Libyan Islamic cell paid by British intelligence agents to assassinate Colonel Gaddafi in February 1996 were members of Al Qaeda.

The Libyan cell is believed to have included one of Osama bin Laden’s most trusted lieutenants, Anas al-Liby, who remains on the US government’s most wanted list with a reward of $25 million for his capture.

Al-Liby lived in Manchester, England, until May of last year when he eluded a police raid on his house and fled abroad. The raid discovered a 180-page ‘manual for jihad’ containing instructions for terrorist attacks.

The disclosure of al-Liby’s involvement in the assassination cell are contained in Forbidden Truth, a new book by two French intelligence experts recently published in the US. Allegations that MI6 worked with one of the most senior Al Qaeda operatives are likely to be a major embarrassment to the British government.

UK Home Secretary David Blunkett and Foreign Secretary Jack Straw have signed a series of gagging orders to protect the British officers allegedly involved in the plot. The orders forced the judge to eject the media from court when the activities of the intelligence agencies are being discussed.

Shayler claims he was first briefed about the plot during formal meetings with colleagues from the foreign intelligence service MI6 when he was working on MI5’s Libya desk.

The Observer newspaper in London on Sunday revealed that the MI6 officers involved in the alleged plot were Richard Bartlett, who has previously only been known under the codename PT16 and had overall responsibility for the operation, and David Watson, codename PT16B.

As Shayler’s opposite number in MI6, Watson was responsible for running a Libyan agent, ‘Tunworth’, who was providing information from within the cell and, according to Shayler, passing at least $150,000 of British taxpayers’ money to the Al Qaeda plotters.

Shayler said he wants to call Bartlett and Watson as witnesses, but may be prevented from doing so by the government.

Watson went on to work as the main MI6 contact in the British embassy in the Spanish capital Madrid, but it is believed that he and Bartlett have now been relocated and given new identities as a result of Shayler’s revelations.

This weekend MI6 was said to be resigned to the men’s identities being made public, although it believed the security situation post-September 11 meant that further measures would have to be put in place to ensure their safety.

The assassination attempt on Gaddafi was finally made in February 1996 during an official parade near the Libyan leader’s home city of Sirte. A bomb or a grenade was thrown at the cavalcade, killing several bodyguards.

In a firefight that followed, three militants were killed. Gaddafi survived, but several innocent bystanders were killed. Footage released on Libyan TV in 1998 showed an alleged grenade attack on Gaddafi from the period of the alleged plot. A man is seen throwing an object into the dictator’s entourage and is later said to have confessed to being a British agent.

Shayler claims Watson later boasted that there had been MI6 involvement in the operation. If permitted by the judge, he will call a witness to the conversation in which the MI6 man claimed that British Intelligence had paid the plotters.

According to Shayler, the woman, an Arabic translator at MI5, was also shocked by Watson’s admission of intelligence service involvement in a serious crime that left several ordinary Libyans dead.

Malcolm Rifkind, the Conservative Foreign Secretary at the time, has repeatedly said he gave no such authorization and did not know of any payments to extremist Muslim groups.

A top-secret MI6 document leaked on the Internet two years ago confirmed British Intelligence knew of the plot, which involved five colonels, Libyan students and ‘Libya veterans who served in Afghanistan’. Shayler claims this last phrase is intelligence shorthand for Al Qaeda.—Dawn/The Guardian News Service.