Blair, Kadafi meet briefly in Libya

British prime minister welcomes leader's moves to abandon arms, terror

March 26, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

LONDON - With a handshake that was beamed round the world, Prime Minister Tony Blair officially ended Libya's three decades of isolation by greeting Col. Muammar el Kadafi yesterday in a tent near the capital, Tripoli, where they exchanged promises to fight the terrorism that Kadafi once enthusiastically supported.

Some relatives of those who died in 1988 in the bombing of a Pan Am jet over Lockerbie, Scotland, criticized Blair's journey. Libyan intelligence was blamed for that act, and Libya admitted responsibility in September. It also agreed to pay $2.7 billion to the families of 270 victims, most of them American.

Michael Howard, the leader of the opposition Conservative Party, said it was a mistake for Blair to travel to Libya to greet Kadafi immediately after the memorial service in Madrid on Wednesday for the victims of the March 11 terrorist attacks there, which killed 190 people - not because Libya is suspected in the Madrid bombings but because of Kadafi's historic association with terrorism.

Blair defended his actions, saying he and President Bush were "reaching out the hand of partnership" to reward Libya for its decision, announced Dec. 19, to surrender a 20-year accumulation of weapons, including an extensive effort aimed at making nuclear bombs.

"We are showing by our engagement with Libya today that it is possible for countries in the Arab world to work with the United States and the U.K. to defeat the common enemy of extremist fanatical terrorism driven by al-Qaida," Blair said.

The Libyan leader did not appear at the news conference, and he made no public comment beyond a few remarks to Blair in English during their meeting in the tent.

"You did a lot of fighting on this issue and seem exhausted," said the colonel, dressed in a robe, traditional hat and tinted glasses. The meeting was widely televised.

"There's been a lot to do," Blair replied.

Kadafi, 62, complimented Blair, 50, saying: "You are looking good. You are still young."

Afterward, Blair announced that the Shell oil group had won a $200 million contract, worth up to $1 billion in the long term, to seek natural gas in Libya.

He also said the British aerospace company, BAE Systems, was close to an agreement to provide civil aviation services; Libya's fleet of passenger jets is regarded as dilapidated and unsafe after years of sanctions and neglect.

The wreckage of Libya's economy after 35 years of Kadafi's rule is cited by many experts as the strongest motivation behind his decision to alter his national strategy radically.

Blair, the first British prime minister to visit Libya since Winston Churchill inspected British forces there during World War II, hailed Kadafi's decision to end his arms programs and rejected suggestions that he should feel "queasy" sitting down with a man who helped create the modern prototype of state-sponsored terrorism.

"Well, I've also sat down with people from Sinn Fein, as you know, because I thought it was important to do so in the context of peace in Northern Ireland," Blair said, referring to the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, whose campaign of terror in Britain was assisted for many years by Kadafi's intelligence services.

Still, Blair acknowledged that "it was strange, given the history, to come here and do this."

While Blair seemed determined to make this trip an expression of good faith after months of secret talks last year that led to the December breakthrough, Bush is in no hurry to meet with the Libyan leader. But the White House continues to encourage him toward disarmament and resolution of the many legal cases that arose from Libya's terrorist past.

U.S. companies are also poised to return to Libya as soon as Congress lifts sanctions, a step that could be delayed by factors related to monitoring military programs and the demands of Lockerbie family members for a more detailed accounting of Libya's terrorist past.

Yesterday, Britain's foreign secretary, Jack Straw, again praised the "high degree of courage" shown by Kadafi in seeking better relations. But Howard, the opposition leader, scornfully told the BBC that to call the Libyan leader "courageous for giving up murder and terrorism is really extraordinary."

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