Blair accepts invitation to meet Gaddafi

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair will pay a visit to Libya "as soon as convenient", following the country's much-publicised decision last month to abandon its nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programmes.

The invitation was included in a confidential letter to the Prime Minister from the Libyan leader, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, delivered to Downing Street yesterday by the Libyan Foreign Minister, Abdul Rahman Shalgam, who was in London for the first high-level talks between Libyan and British officials for 30 years.

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, told a joint press conference that a date for Mr Blair's visit had yet to be arranged, and he implied that it would depend on progress towards identifying the killer of WPC Yvonne Fletcher, the policewoman shot dead during an anti-Gaddafi demonstration outside the Libyan People's Bureau in St James Square, London, in April 1984. The shot was fired from a window of the embassy and the gunman is presumed to have been among the 21 Libyans who were deported from the country shortly afterwards.

Mr Straw said Britain and Libya would "enhance" their efforts to resolve the case.

Mr Shalgam said: "We are going to work on this issue, as we are going to work on other issues, with a spirit of cooperation, transparency and honesty." Libya has paid compensation to Ms Fletcher's family, but the killer has been neither named nor brought to justice.

The murder is the only outstanding bilateral obstacle to better relations between London and Tripoli, following Libya's payment of compensation to relatives of those killed in the Lockerbie bombing and its settlement of overdue loans at the end of last year.

Mr Shalgam was given red-carpet treatment in London, where he had dinner with the Foreign Office minister, Mike O'Brien, and meetings with both Mr Straw and Mr Blair. Mr Straw said the visit was "truly historic" and "tangible proof of the improving relations between Libya and the United Kingdom". But efforts to present it also as the start of Libya's reintegration into the international community were partly trumped by the reception accorded to the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, in a visit to Tripoli at almost the same time.

Mr Shalgam revealed that the first US diplomatic presence had been established in Libya, as part of the negotiation and verification operation linked to Libya's renunciation of its weapons programmes.

He said that Libyan diplomats would leave for the US shortly to work in the Libyan interests section in Washington and that the US was relaxing its ban on travel to Libya by US citizens. The US State Department has confirmed that it has one diplomat stationed in Tripoli.

While Britain restored full diplomatic relations with Libya in 1999 after Col Gaddafi agreed to extradite two Libyans to stand trial for the Lockerbie bombing, the US maintained sanctions. The presence of a US diplomat in Tripoli was hailed yesterday as the first step towards the normalisation of relations, a development that US oil companies have been lobbying for.

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