Diplomatic bind for Europe as Gaddafi marks 40 years at helm

29th August 2009, Comments 0 comments

Libya became an international pariah in the aftermath of the 1988 Lockerbie airliner bombing but relations began to thaw when it agreed in 2003 to pay compensation to the families of the 270 people who were killed.

Rome -- The 40th anniversary of Libyan leader Moamer Gaddafi's seizure of power on Tuesday poses a diplomatic bind for European states keen to deepen economic ties with his oil-rich country but loath to lavish attention on the former international pariah.

The bash will come on the heels of Western outrage sparked by the hero's welcome accorded to convicted Lockerbie bomber Ali Mohamed al-Megrahi in Tripoli after a Scottish court released him on compassionate grounds.

Moscow and Paris were quick to deny claims by Tripoli that French President Nicolas Sarkozy and the Russian president and prime minister, Dmitri Medvedev and Vladimir Putin, planned to attend the festivities.

"A lot of governments are trying to keep everything under the radar... trying not to be caught up in the spotlight now being flashed on Libya," said Molly Tarhuni of the Chatham House think-tank in London.

But "everyone is dealing with them, no one is going to pull out over a little political embarrassment," Tarhuni added in a telephone interview.

Gaddafi's son Seif al-Islam said in an interview published Friday in the Scottish newspaper The Herald that "Lockerbie is history. The next step is fruitful and productive business with Edinburgh and London. Libya is a promising, rich market and so let's talk about the future," he said.

But he claimed an earlier statement attributed to him that Megrahi's release last week was negotiated in exchange for lucrative trade deals with Britain had been misquoted.

"This anniversary exposes contradictions for the Western countries," said Antoine Basbous, head of a Paris think-tank on Arab affairs.

"Out of political cynicism, the leaders won't rub Gaddafi the wrong way, but public opinion still considers him an undesirable," he told AFP.

In reality, "Western countries are jockeying for position in Libya," he added.

"The champion is (Italian Prime Minister Silvio) Berlusconi, closely followed by (former British prime minister) Tony Blair," he said.

Berlusconi will be in Tripoli on Sunday to mark another anniversary -- one year since Italy and its former colony sealed a friendship treaty.

Italy will pay five billion dollars (3.5 billion euros) in compensation for colonial-era wrongs in the form of investments over the next 25 years under the treaty.

The Italian leader, whose visit has been roundly denounced by the left-wing opposition, will not however stay on for the 40th anniversary bash.

Libya became an international pariah in the aftermath of the 1988 Lockerbie airliner bombing but relations began to thaw when it agreed in 2003 to pay compensation to the families of the 270 people who were killed.

Gaddafi also renounced terrorism and declared he was giving up the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, prompting the lifting of UN sanctions.

In March 2004 then Prime Minister Blair was the first Western leader to travel to Libya.

The energy-starved European Union is currently in delicate talks for a partnership accord with Libya initiated in 2007, after Tripoli released Bulgarian medics who had spent eight years in jail for allegedly infecting hundreds of Libyan children with HIV-tainted blood.

While the EU initially hoped to complete the accord this year, negotiations have hit snags, notably on the issue of illegal immigration, with the European Commission pressing Tripoli to sign the Geneva Convention on refugees.

Libya, a principal launch pad for sub-Saharan boat people heading for Europe, is the only country in the Mediterranean rim that has no formal accord with the EU.

However it reached a controversial accord with Italy in May under which it agreed to take back boat people intercepted by the Italian coastguard.

Meanwhile Swiss President Hans-Rudolf Merz, seeking to end a year-long standoff with Tripoli for the July 2008 arrest of another of Gaddafi's sons, last week apologised over the affair.

The incident had led to a freeze on Swiss business, the withdrawal of Libyan assets from Swiss banks and disruption to oil deliveries.

A visit by Gaddafi to France in December 2007 sparked widespread criticism despite the promise of billions of euros in contracts.

Controversy also attended a visit by the flamboyant Libyan leader to Italy, a major business partner, in June.


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