Fri, Mar 26, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Blair arrives in Libya to offer British `partnership'

REUTERS , TRIPOLI

British Prime Minister Tony Blair arrived in Libya yesterday offering a "hand in partnership" to Muammar Qaddafi, once reviled as a pariah in the West.

Blair has promised not to "forget the pain of the past" after the 1988 Lockerbie bombing which killed 270 people and accusations that Qaddafi armed IRA guerrillas.

But he said Libya should be ushered back into the international fold for turning its back on banned weapons and paying compensation for Lockerbie.

Even before Blair touched down, gains to British business from the diplomatic thaw were being notched up. An official traveling on the plane to Tripoli said that oil giant Royal Dutch/Shell had won a US$200 million gas-exploration deal with Libya.

Blair arrived at Maitiga airport, a former US military base on the outskirts of Tripoli, to be greeted by Prime Minister Shokri Ghanem.

He will be whisked by car for his meeting with Qaddafi, once condemned by former US president Ronald Reagan as "this mad dog of the Middle East," in a ceremonial tent outside Tripoli.

Blair is the first British leader to visit Libya since Winston Churchill during WWII.

The leaders of Spain and Italy have already met Qaddafi in recent months, and earlier this week Assistant Secretary of State William Burns became the highest-level US official to visit Libya in more than 30 years.

Late on Wednesday, Blair brushed aside domestic criticism of his visit, saying it was a risk worth taking.

"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," he told a news conference.

"That does not mean forgetting the pain of the past but it does mean recognizing change when it happens," he said.

Libya announced last December it would abandon efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction, in a bid to further mend ties with the West after agreeing to pay damages for the Lockerbie bombing.

Critics accuse Blair of being motivated by trade prospects rather than politics in what they see as an act of misguided appeasement.

But London played the leading role in persuading Libya to renounce banned weapons and believes its softly-softly diplomatic approach to Tripoli was the key to winning results.

Britain's opposition Conservatives said the timing of the visit was "highly questionable," coming a day after he attended a memorial service for this month's Madrid rail bombing victims -- Europe's biggest terror attack since Lockerbie.

But many relatives of the Lockerbie victims were supportive of the diplomatic milestone.

British firms, like their continental European counterparts before them, are keen to exploit opportunities in Libya.

Aside from Shell, defense contractor BAE Systems has announced it was in talks on aviation projects, including potential aircraft sales.

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