Libya seeks a new start

Kadafi: Though he says he wants a rapprochement with Washington, the Libyan leader apparently remains embittered toward the "racist, fanatical" United States.

April 11, 1999|By Milton Viorst

COL. MUAMMAR El Kadafi's emissary, Youssef Debri, met me in Cairo last year. He was in Egypt exploring the ramifications of Libya's surrendering two of its citizens to stand trial for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.

In formal talks in New York, a U.N. official had managed to narrow the gap between Libya's concerns and the British-American proposal for a trial in the Netherlands, but important differences remained.

Now Debri was in Cairo informally, to clarify Washington's terms with a well-connected, retired American diplomat, in the hope of ending Kadafi's equivocation.

An intimate of Kadafi since their student days at military college, Debri had contacted me some weeks before to propose that I visit Libya. Cut off from the world by the U.N. embargo over Lockerbie, Libya, he said, had grown weary of its isolation.

Under the embargo's terms, it could sell oil -- its only export -- to European customers, so it had money for food and medicines. But the other barriers to trade and transportation were wearing it down. Few businessmen and almost no journalists came to call.

Debri's message was that Libya, anxious for a new start, wanted to put Lockerbie behind it. In Libya, he assured me, I would be free to go where I liked and to see whomever I wanted, including Kadafi.

Having decided to make the journey late last year, I went to the State Department for a briefing. Officials there acknowledged that they knew little about what was going on in Libya. In 1986, two years before Lockerbie, President Reagan broke off relations with Libya and imposed economic sanctions in response to a series of terrorist incidents.

In the past few years, the officials said, Libya had committed no terrorist acts. Unlike Iraq, it posed no strategic threat. But because of Lockerbie, the United States still shunned Kadafi and kept Libya on its list of terrorist states.

In 1991, a U.S. grand jury indicted two Libyans -- Al-Amin Khalifa Fahima, ex-manager of the Libyan Arab Airlines office in Malta, and Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, a high-level intelligence official -- for the Lockerbie bombing. A British court did the same. In 1992, the U.N. Security Council imposed sanctions, including a flight ban that effectively closed Libya's airports. Tripoli, in response, proposed trying the two suspects in a neutral country, but Washington and London would have none of it.

Then, last August, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright announced that she would "call the Libyan government's bluff" and offered a trial by a Scottish court seated in the Netherlands. Libya agreed in principle, but Kadafi demanded more details.

On Monday, the two Libyan suspects landed in the Netherlands and were taken into Scottish custody to stand trial for the bombing of Pan Am 103. United Nations sanctions imposed on Libya during the past seven years were partly suspended within hours after a U.N. aircraft brought the accused men to the Netherlands. U.S. sanctions remain in place.

The American embargo did not bar my visit last year (as it makes an exception for journalists). I flew to Cairo; then, with Youssef Debri, set off for Tripoli by car.

We stopped at Benghazi, then Sirte, chosen by Kadafi as Libya's new capital. Around 11 o'clock on the morning after our arrival, Debri and I set out, heading south, to see Kadafi.

After a half-hour ride across the desert, we were met by a police escort, which led us to an almost indiscernible dirt track that ran off the paved road. A bumpy mile or so later, we reached the gate of a chain-link fence, where three or four limousines sat.

Parking our car among them, we piled into a Land Rover, which bucked us over rock and sand a half-hour deeper into the desert. Finally, we reached an encampment of large tents and modern trailers near which grazed a herd of some 200 camels. No armed guards seemed to be anywhere in view.

The tent to which I was first directed was ballroom-size, its sides open to admit the breeze. Seated next to three Africans in native robes, I was offered tea.

The Africans made a brief call on Kadafi, after which Youssef escorted me to Kadafi's tent, pitched nearby, and left me there. Save for a few simple chairs and a table, the tent was bare. Its camel-skin roof and sides were weathered; the rugs covering the sand floor were ordinary.

Kadafi sat alone, except for an interpreter. He wore a thin, tattered Bedouin robe, embroidered at the edges, over a much-laundered print sport shirt and khaki pants. His furrowed face was clean-shaven, his eyes covered by dark glasses. A beige turban half-concealed his bushy hair.

'America is much like Hitler'

I began the interview by asking whether the view that Libya had embarked on a new course was correct.

Kadafi did not turn to me to answer. Looking through the open flaps of the tent, he fixed his eyes on the horizon. His lips seemed barely to move. He spoke in a controlled monotone, though from time to time emotion quickened its pace.

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