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EU/Libya: Ghaddafi Visits Brussels In Tripoli’s Latest Step Coming In From The Cold

Prague, 27 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Libya's leader has been welcomed in Brussels on his first trip to Europe in 15 years -- the latest step in Tripoli's transformation from pariah to Western partner.

Muammar Ghaddafi held talks with senior European Union officials, including European Commission President Romano Prodi.

Prodi said it was a "great day" for the two sides, and pledged closer partnership with Libya "as soon as possible.”

The real test of Libya's rehabilitation will be whether Washington moves to restore diplomatic ties.
"I welcome the Libyan statement towards the promotion of peace, stability, and prosperity in the Mediterranean and African regions,” Prodi said. “The European Union shares these objectives and wants to work on them together with Libya."

Ghaddafi said he and Prodi had been in agreement on many points during their talks, which also covered the fight against illegal immigration.

And he said Libya is now an example to other countries in renouncing weapons of mass destruction programs.

"Libya, which was in the lead and led the liberation movement in the Third World and Africa, now has decided to lead the peace movement all over the world,” Ghaddafi said. “The first step to prove that was taken voluntarily, out of [my] own will and volition, to discard all weapons of mass destruction programs."

As usual, the Libyan leader and his entourage made a colorful presence. Ghaddafi, dressed in traditional dark-brown robes, arrived at EU headquarters accompanied by a team of female bodyguards.

He is going to stay in a tent, set up especially for him at the Belgian state residence.

The maverick leader -- once reviled in Western capitals as a sponsor of terrorism -- gave a clenched-fist salute to a group of supporters as he emerged from a white limousine.

But there were also protesters angry that the West is now welcoming the authoritarian ruler

"We are here today to protest against this visit,” said Salam, a protester. “All the humanity, all the international society knows that he is a dictator. He is a dictator and he killed a lot of people in Libya. He killed more than a thousand political prisoners in Libya, and the European Union invites him and receives him as a good person."

Ghaddafi's two-day visit is the latest step in Libya's rapid re-emergence from years of international isolation.

That began in earnest last year, when Tripoli agreed to pay the families of passengers killed in the 1988 bombing of an airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland. Libyan nationals were accused of carrying out the bombing and one man was convicted.

Then in December, Libya announced it would renounce programs to develop banned weapons. Tripoli’s actions earned Libya a lifting of UN economic sanctions and an easing of nearly two decades of American sanctions.

Last month, British Prime Minister Tony Blair shook hands with Ghaddafi on a historic visit to Tripoli, and hailed what he called a "new partnership" with Libya.

Today's visit confirms Libya is on the path to join the EU's trade and aid pact with Mediterranean countries -- the so-called "Barcelona process."

Prodi said he is hopeful that settlements can first be reached on two of the biggest remaining obstacles.

Germany wants compensation for the 1986 bombing of a Berlin disco -- blamed on Libya -- that killed two U.S. soldiers and a Turkish woman.

And Bulgaria wants Tripoli to free six Bulgarian medics accused of deliberately infecting hundreds of children with the HIV virus.

But there's also continuing criticism of Libya's human-rights record. Amnesty International released a report today citing a "pattern of ongoing human rights violations," and urged EU leaders to pressure Ghaddafi and "make human rights a reality."

Philip McCrum is a Libya expert with the Economist Intelligence Unit. He says the improved ties should give the EU more clout in this area.

"Particularly if Libya joins the Barcelona process, the euro-Mediterranean partnership, there will be much more chance to develop a dialogue with Libya on that," he said. "And indeed I think Libya will be keen to play ball [cooperate], not just with the EU but with the U.S., which has particular concerns over Libya's human rights. [Ghaddafi] has, of course, recently announced he will set up a proper court, proper judicial system, and is dismantling the arbitrary emergency powers that have been in place in Libya for some time. Of course at the moment, a lot of that is just rhetoric and the EU and the West will need to see action rather than words on this issue."

The real test of Libya's rehabilitation will be whether Washington moves to restore diplomatic ties.

Richard Reeve, a regional analyst with Jane's military publishing group, says the prospects for that look good in the medium-term, but that for now, Ghaddafi is still seen as a political liability.

"It may seem unlikely before the [U.S. presidential] elections in November," Reeve said. "It's difficult within the context of the U.S. war on terrorism and the whole platform of the Bush administration to contemplate a complete normalization of relations with Libya. And that is probably influential in determining that Libya is still on the state-sponsored terrorism list, which is the main bulwark against Libya being fully accepted into the international community and normalizing relations with the U.S."

Ghaddafi's visit continues with a dinner tonight with Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, and meetings tomorrow with business leaders and lawmakers.