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Blair ‘reaches out’ to Gadhafi

In Libya, leaders exchange promises to fight terrorism

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Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair, left, walks with Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi upon Blair's arrival in Tripoli.

Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair, left, walks with Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi upon Blair’s arrival in Tripoli.

Alastair Grant, Associated Press

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. Moammar Gadhafi on Thursday in a tent near the capital, Tripoli, where they exchanged promises to fight the terrorism that Gadhafi 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 have traveled to Libya to greet Gadhafi 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 Gadhafi's historic association with terrorism.

But 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 unconventional 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 at a news conference.

The Libyan leader did not appear at the news conference, and he made no public comment beyond a few comments 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.

Gadhafi, 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 explore for 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.

Indeed, the wreckage of Libya's economy after 35 years of Gadhafi'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 Churchill inspected British forces there during World War II, hailed Gadhafi's decision to end his weapons 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 Gadhafi'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.

American 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.

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

Arab commentators were also harsh. Al Quds Al Arabi, an Arabic newspaper in London, said that while Libya was free to normalize its relations with the West, "Libyan authorities have entirely turned their back on the Arabs, mocking them and denying their principles and history, as if restoring ties with America or Britain cannot happen except at the expense of the Arab world."

British officials also said they had made progress in the long-stalled investigation into the death of a young police officer, Yvonne Fletcher, who was killed in 1984 by a bullet that is believed to have been fired from inside the Libyan Embassy in London. British police detectives are to go to Tripoli on April 3 to interview possible Libyan witnesses who were working in the embassy at the time, police officials in London said.