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Europe

Libyan Leader Pitches Tent in Brussels

Meeting with EU leaders Tuesday, Moammar Gadhafi makes his first visit to Europe in 15 years. The trip is a major step towards normalizing relations with Libya following its decision to shun weapons of mass destruction.

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Prodi, left, gave his visitor a warm welcome

Normally, guests of state in Belgium are put up in the majestic Val Duchess chateau. But Libya's Moammar Gadhafi is not a usual visitor -- he's here to restore relations after being shunned by the international community for the better part of two decades. Nor does his visit look normal, for Gadhafi has eschewed the finer aspects of palace living and instead pitched a blue Bedouin tent on the palace grounds. Indeed, Gadhafi is as eccentric as ever.

Outside the palace grounds, things only look a bit more like an official state visit.

Welcomed with outstretched arms and dancing

Breaking with the usual EU protocol, European Commission President Romano Prodi strode down the runway at Brussels' Zaventem airport to personally greet the Libyan leader, who was dressed in a flamboyant red fez hat and gray-green sweeping robe. It is Gadhafi's first visit to Europe in 15 years, and despite all that has transgressed since then, the EU is keen on making the ostracized leader feel welcome.

Libya has made "remarkable progress" in shedding its rogue nation status, the EU said recently. And on Tuesday the Commission rolled out the red carpet to Gadhafi and hopes to welcome Libya into the EU’s trade and security partnership with countries bordering the Mediterranean as soon as possible.

For the Libyan leader, who was greeted with a singing and dancing crowd of some 200 supporters in front of the Commission headquarters, the trip to Brussels is the first in a series of steps towards "full normalization" of relations with the EU.

Inching back into the fold

Lockerbie

Pan Am Flight 103 at the site of its crash in Lockerbie, Scotland.

The official invitation to the European Union headquarters is a further reward for Gadhafi’s recent moves towards ending Libya’s isolation from the international community. The Arab leader's renunciation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons in December followed Libya’s acceptance earlier in the year of responsibility for the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am jumbo jet over Lockerbie, Scotland, and another plane in Niger in 1989. Libya agreed to pay millions of euros in compensation to the families of the hundreds of victims.

For years Gadhafi was shunned by the international community as an active supporter of terrorism. Sanctions were imposed on Libya in 1986 by the United States and others following the bombing of the discotheque in West Berlin frequented by American soldiers.

Last week U.S. President George W. Bush followed Europe’s lead in lifting most of the commercial sanctions, but Washington says it still needs to be completely convinced that Libya no longer sponsors terrorism before it will remove the country from its terrorist blacklist and restore diplomatic relations.

Germany resists immediate lifting of sanctions

Bombenanschlag auf Diskotek La Belle

Berlin's La Belle disco

The La Belle discotheque bombing in Berlin remains an obstacle to Gadhafi’s ambitions to improve relations with the European Union. Germany is still demanding compensation for the victims of that attack, and Bulgaria has also raised objections to welcoming Libya into the fold -- at least until six Bulgarian medics detained since 1999 on charges of deliberately infecting over 400 children with the HIV virus are released. A Libyan court is due to issue a verdict in the Bulgarians' case on May 6.

But German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer indicated on Monday that he hopes these issues will soon be resolved. "That would be very helpful," Fischer told a press conference in Luxembourg. "Chances of getting all barriers out of the way are there."

This would potentially clear the way for the European Union to lift its arms embargo on Libya, and for negotiations to begin on accepting Libya as part of the Barcelona Process -- an ongoing political cooperation covering trade, aid and security measures between the EU and 11 south and east Mediterranean-rim countries. (Libya is currently the only country in the region that is not included in the partnership.)

European Commission chief Romano Prodi said Tuesday the EU wanted to admit Libya to the regional partnership as soon as possible.

These two issues top Gadhafi's agenda in his meetings on Tuesday with the EU executive, European Commission President Romano Prodi and Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt.

Charges of human rights abuses

But the EU will also address the issue of Libya’s poor human rights record. A report released by the human rights organization Amnesty International to coincide with Gadhafi’s visit accuses Libya of ongoing human rights violations, including torture and the detention and execution of political dissidents. Amnesty has called on Gadhafi to make good his promise to abolish the death penalty and improve his human rights record.

EU officials said they would raise the issue of human rights with the Libyan leader, but they acknowledged that geopolitics and the desire to reward an Arab state which has renounced terrorism and nuclear, biological and chemical weapons took precedence..

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