Military bands, 400 dancers, aerobatic planes and fireworks were all set to electrify a hot and drowsy Tripoli from yesterday as Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi throws a mammoth party to mark four decades since taking power.
The six days of celebrations across the north African country were designed to get the message across to the world that the long-isolated oil exporter was open again for business after years of heavy sanctions, organizers said.
But controversy still stalks Qaddafi, with the US and Britain angry at the “hero’s welcome” that Tripoli gave a former Libyan agent who was freed by Scotland last month from a life sentence for the Lockerbie bombing that killed 270 people.
Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, the only person convicted of the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am airliner, was released on compassionate grounds because he is dying of cancer.
Libya has invited dozens of Western heads of state, but European leaders are expected to stay away, including Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who visited Libya on Sunday to mark the first anniversary of a Libyan-Italian friendship agreement.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez will attend, and a bevy of African leaders including Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, are expected to be in town for an African Union summit.
“Libya is opening up to the world — that is the basic message,” said Philippe Skaff, who heads the team coordinating the centerpiece celebration event. It includes companies from France and Britain.
“This is the first time they actually received thousands of foreigners with open arms. They are granting visas for this like they’ve never done before,” he said.
Libya has cut support for armed revolutionary groups around the world and made peace with Washington by scrapping a program to build nuclear weapons and paying compensation for bombings and other attacks for which it was blamed by the West.
At home, political parties remain banned and Qaddafi staunchly defends his system of grass-roots government by town-hall committee, rejected by critics as a cloak for authoritarianism.
But foreign companies are back searching for oil or vying for contracts to build roads, railways, phone networks and schools as Libya tries to make up for lost time.
As Tripoli counted down to its six-day party, lasers beamed out into the Mediterranean through the hot, humid night air from the roofs of new hotels built to cater for the influx of foreigners.
Lights adorn buildings across the city, walls in the old town have been freshly whitewashed and rows of green Libyan flags flutter over its dusty streets.
Portraits of Qaddafi adorn billboards and buildings across the city, his features sometimes traced out in colorful neon lights. Two new oil tankers loom over the corniche in a statement of Libya’s growing might as an energy producer.
In the following days, hot air balloons will rise over the desert and Tuaregs will hold a festival featuring 1,000 camels. Libya’s ancient coastal cities of Leptis Magna and Sabratha will come right up to date with sound and light displays.