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Blair to hold historic talks with Gaddafi
Updated: 2004-03-25 13:40

Tony Blair will help usher Libya back into the international community Thursday when he becomes the first British leader to visit Tripoli since Winston Churchill in World War II.

Blair will meet Muammar Gaddafi in a tent on the outskirts of the capital, reward British officials said for the Libyan leader's decision to give up banned weapons programs and pay compensation for the 1988 Lockerbie airliner bombing.

The premiers of Italy and Spain have met Gaddafi in recent months and a senior U.S. official was in Tripoli in Wednesday.

"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," Blair told a news conference during a visit to Lisbon Wednesday.

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

Libya said in December it would abandon efforts to acquire nuclear, biological or chemical weapons, a new attempt to mend ties with the West after paying damages for the 1988 Lockerbie bombing of a U.S. airliner over Scotland.

"We want to demonstrate our support for those decisions," a senior British government official said.

London played a key role in persuading Gaddafi to end his weapons programs and clinch a deal with the United States.

Some critics asked, however, whether Blair's mission was more about trade than politics,

The official said British business would gain from closer ties with oil-rich Libya, until recently seen by the West as a pariah state and sponsor of terrorism.

The Anglo-Dutch oil company Royal Dutch/Shell may sign an outline deal within days for offshore gas exploration rights, he said, while British arms maker BAE Systems announced it was in talks on aviation projects, including potential aircraft sales.

Blair will also offer military training for Libyan troops.

The British Third World aid organization Oxfam criticized any potential arms deals: "Using them as a reward for short-term political cooperation smacks of the bad old days of British arms policy," the charity's spokesman, Phil Bloomer, said.


Washington, also rebuilding ties with Libya, sent a senior official to meet Gaddafi Tuesday.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said William Burns, the highest ranking member of an American government to visit Libya in more than 30 years, had had "good discussions" with Gaddafi.

Libyan Foreign Ministry spokesman Hassouna Chaouch said the talks were a positive step in building ties of trust between Tripoli and Washington while Blair's visit would "illustrate the excellent relations that exist between Libya and Great Britain."

Blair was in Spain Wednesday for a memorial service for the victims of this month's Madrid train bombings that killed 190 people. He then flew on to Portugal for talks.

His Conservative opponents condemned the Gaddafi meeting.

"I imagine it will cause considerable distress to the families of the victims of Lockerbie," Conservative leader Michael Howard told the BBC.

But Jim Swire, a spokesman for some of the families of the Lockerbie victims, welcomed Blair's engagement with Gaddafi.

"It means there is one less nation that might in future be inclined to back terrorism and therefore it reduces the chances of further terrorist attacks," he told Reuters.

Britain cut diplomatic ties with Tripoli after a policewoman was shot dead outside Libya's London embassy in 1984.

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