Tue, Jan 27, 2004 - Page 6 News List

US lawmakers strengthen ties with Libya

NEW START After years of hostility between the two countries, conciliatory gestures by Muammar Qaddafi have resulted in a visit by seven members of the US Congress

AP , TRIPOLI, LIBYA

Libyan officials watch as an American Congressional delegation arrives in Tripoli on Sunday. The delegation flew in on the first US military plane to land in Libya since Muammar Qaddafi took power in 1969.

PHOTO: AP

The sight of the white jet taxiing down the tarmac Sunday left no doubt that one of the world's pariah states was coming in from the cold.

The jet bore the words ``United States Navy,'' and from it emerged seven members of US Congress, who heaped words of praise on the recent reforms of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, the Libyan leader who former US president Ronald Reagan once called a barbarian.

"We're very excited about opening this new chapter in our relations," said Representative Curt Weldon, who stepped off the plane wearing a pin with the US and Libyan flags.

"I'd say the Libyan leader has taken the first step," Weldon said, adding: "Once our governments have completed the process of formal relations, there is no limit to what we can accomplish together."

Representative Solomon Ortiz put it more simply: "We want to be friends."

The US military aircraft was the first to touch down in Tripoli since 1969, when Qaddafi seized power.

In the interim, US warplanes have flown only overhead, notably in 1986 when they launched attacks that killed 37 people, including Qaddafi's adopted daughter, in retaliation for the bombing of a German disco that killed a US soldier and a Turkish woman.

The US imposed sanctions that year, accusing Libya of supporting terrorist groups. Ten years later, the US said it would penalize the US partners of European companies that did significant business in Libya and Iran.

"I don't think we can change history, but we also understand we can move together toward a new beginning," Weldon said.

Over the last year Qaddafi has made a startling turnaround. He admitted his country's involvement in the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am jetliner over Lockerbie, Scotland, and agreed to pay US$2.7 billion to the victims' families.

He also admitted he had tried to develop weapons of mass destruction -- including a nuclear bomb -- and invited UN, US and British inspectors to inspect his weapons programs and dismantle them.

"I think clearly that Qaddafi is for real in that he has made this switch," Representative Darrell Issa said "He has been a person of abrupt changes throughout his career."

Some have suggested that Libya didn't want to face the kind of war that drove former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein from power. But diplomats say Libya appears to have made a firm decision to remake itself in 2002, before the US launched its war on Iraq.

Qaddafi's decisions followed months of secret negotiations with the US and Britain.

After Libya admitted in September its involvement in the Lockerbie bombing, the UN Security Council voted to lift its sanctions, but the US is waiting for Qaddafi to follow through on the rest of his pledges before doing the same.

The lawmakers indicated that barring any changes of heart, diplomatic ties could soon be restored.

"We are here to let the leaders of Libya know that if they continue the steps they are taking, that's a very real likelihood," Weldon said.

Libya is also counting on a restoration of economic ties. The sanctions have cost Libya more than US$30 billion in lost business. Investment is especially needed for an oil industry that once made the North African country of about 5 million people a regional power.

The congressional delegation met Sunday with Libya's prime minister, foreign minister and a delegation from the People's Congress -- the equivalent of a parliament.

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