Blair offers 'hand of partnership' to Gadaffi

Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair offered a “hand of partnership” to Libyan leader Colonel Moammar Gadaffi in Tripoli on Thursday in a changing post-September 11 world.

After a landmark meeting and handshakes that came three months after Libya’s decision to abandon weapons of mass destruction, Blair spoke of “real hope that we can build a new relationship with it [Tripoli], one for the modern world”.

He said he was was struck not only by Gadaffi’s “insistence on Libya’s determination to carry on down this path of cooperation,

but also his recognition that Libya’s own future is best secured by a new relationship with the outside world”.

The Libyan leader recognised “a common cause, with us, in the fight against al-Qaeda extremism and terrorism, which threatens not just the Western world but the Arab world also”, said Blair.

“In reaching out the hand of partnership today, we do not forget the past, but we do try in the light of the genuine changes happening, to move beyond it,” said the first British premier to visit Libya since its 1951 independence.

Blair, who met Gadaffi in a Bedouin tent on the outskirts of Tripoli, also hailed the “remarkable progress” made by former “rogue state” Libya in mending fences with the West.

“It’s good to be here at last after so many months,” he said at the meeting.

“You did a lot of fighting on this issue,” said Gadaffi, speaking in English before journalists, in apparent reference to the new warmth between Britain and Libya, which was ostracised in the West for its alleged support of terrorism.

The meeting between Blair, in suit and tie, and Gadaffi, in a traditional dark brown robe and round flat cap, was held in a tent with palm and camel motifs in the green of Islam.

Gadaffi, Libya’s leader since 1969 and often dubbed a maverick in international relations, was bespectacled but without his customary dark sunglasses. The leaders also shared a traditional Libyan meal of fish couscous.

A spokesperson for the premier said, on condition of anonymity, that their views converged on several issues but that they were not in full agreement.

“What they agreed on is the need to unite together, to recognise the problems caused to the world by fundamentalism and what fundamentalism produces, which is terrorism and extremism,” he told reporters.

“They agreed on the need to form new partnership with different countries different grouping,” he said.
“What we are not pretending is that we agreed on every issue.”

Libyan Foreign Minister Abdelrahman Shalgham was also cautious.

“We want a real cooperation,” he said. “This is a political visit during which bilateral relations and the international situation will be discussed.”

On al-Qaeda, blamed for the September 11 2001 anti-United States attacks, he said the terror network posed “a real obstacle against our progress, against our security, against women, against our culture, against any change in the region”.

Blair’s trip marks the most visible sign yet of Libya’s return to the international fold after agreeing in December to give up its programmes to develop banned weaponry.

In London, Royal Dutch/Shell announced it signed a deal with Libya for a “long-term strategic relationship” to explore and tap the North African state’s oil and gas reserves.

The agreement was signed by officials from Shell and Libya’s National Oil Company, it said.

The five-to-seven-year exploration programme is worth $200-million, said Shell’s head of exploration and production, Malcolm Brinded, who signed the deal.

Shalgham said Tripoli has new policies, “especially regarding the sector of oil. We have more than 180 concessions in this sector. We want to rehabilitate our old fields ... to upgrade our capacity of production.”

On the political front, Blair has faced criticism by opponents at home for going to Libya almost immediately after attending a memorial service in Madrid for the victims of the March 11 train bombings in the Spanish capital.

Last year Tripoli agreed to pay compensation for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 108 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270 people and remains Europe’s worst-ever terrorist atrocity.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said on Thursday that it was “courageous” for Gadaffi to have changed his position so completely and credited this to negotiations.

Libya agreed to give up its banned weapons programmes after months of secret talks with Britain and the US.

In an announcement timed for the Tripoli visit, Straw said that British police are to travel to Libya on April 3 to investigate the 1984 murder of a London policewoman shot dead outside the Libyan embassy.—Sapa-AFP

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