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Blair Makes Landmark Trip to Libya

DW staff (jam)March 25, 2004

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has held talks in Libya, extending a "hand in partnership" to Col. Moammar Gadhafi. Once a pariah in the West, the Libyan leader is edging back into the international fold.

Blair said one must remember the past but also "recognize change."Image: AP

Once condemned as the "mad dog of the Middle East" by U.S. President Ronald Reagan, Gadhafi's historic handshake with Britain's Tony Blair on Thursday is a further step in his efforts to gain acceptance by the western leaders, who have spurned him for decades as a backer of terrorists.

Before he left for Tripoli on Thursday, Blair said he will not "forget the pain of the past," referring to the bombing of a Pan Am airliner over Lockerbie that killed 270 and accusations that Gadhafi armed IRA guerillas, but added that countries that agreed to cooperate with the international community should be embraced.

"Let us offer to states that want to renounce terrorism and the development of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons our hand in partnership to achieve it as Libya has rightly and courageously decided to do," Blair told reporters in Lisbon before he left for Tripoli.

The nose section of the Pan Am Boeing 747 after crashing near Lockerbie, Scotland.Image: AP

In December, Libya announced it would abandon efforts to obtain weapons of mass destruction, a further step in mending ties with the West after it agreed to take pay damages for the 1988 Lockerbie bombing (photo).

Blair will meet with Gadhafi in a tent outside the capital Tripoli, the first British leader to visit Libya since Winston Churchill did so in World War II.

"I believe in dealing with these issues in whatever way we can," Blair told reporters on Wednesday. "When we have to take action, we take action. Where we can by diplomacy and negotiation bring people to a more sensible strategy for the future, let us also do that."

Unhappy history

Denkmal Großbritanien Polizist Libyen
The memorial to British police officer Yvonne Fletcher.Image: AP

Britain has had a series of grievances with the north African country. It broke off diplomatic relations with Libya in 1984 after a British policewoman, Yvonne Fletcher, was killed by a shot fired from the Libyan embassy in London.

The Lockerbie bombing in 1988 marked the low point of relations.

But in 1999, the two countries restored diplomatic ties after Libya accepted responsibility for Fletcher's shooting, apologized and offered compensation to her family. Some in Britain however want Blair to press Libya for further cooperation in the investigation into Fletcher's death.

Business eager to mend ties

For many years Libya was effectively off-limits for British business, since it was under UN sanctions. Those sanctions were lifted after the Lockerbie admission.

Now British companies, including Shell and the British aerospace firm BAE, have been looking for new business opportunities in the country.

Libya has a large oil and gas industry that is still undeveloped, with plentiful reserves that are largely untapped. The country's proximity to European markets also makes it attractive to European concerns, who are eager to get into the country before American competitors do.

On Thursday, Shell has said it signed a preliminary agreement with Libya for gas exploration rights. A spokesman for Blair told Reuters earlier that the deal was worth $200 million (€165 million) and possibly up to $1 billion (€823 million).

BAE is talking with Libya about aviation projects, including possible aircraft sales.

Tourism development is also under consideration for the sun-drenched, largely desert country. Reports say a British firm is negotiating permission to build a 500 hectare (1,235 acre) tourism complex, with a luxury marina, golf courses and fitness clubs.

Controversy over reasons for visit

Critics of the trip say Blair's visit is motivated more by business interests rather than politics, and have called it a misguided attempt at appeasement.

The opposition Conservative Party has called the timing "highly questionable" since it comes one day after a memorial service in Spain for the victims of the Madrid train bombings.

Britain's former ambassador to Libya, Oliver Miles, told the BBC that he also questioned the timing and methods, but said while it was known that Gadhafi supported a range of terrorist and national liberation groups, "he hasn't done that in the last 10 years."

Some relatives of victims of the Lockerbie bombing welcomed the diplomatic milestone.

"So long as Libya is indeed turning her back on terrorism we feel this is a good thing," Jim Swire, a spokesman for some of the Lockerbie relatives, told Reuters. "We regard the reintegration of Libya into the community of nations as a good move."