Blair could meet Gaddafi in Libya

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Indy Politics

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw today hailed a "historic" development in relations with Libya after the first visit to Britain by a foreign minister from the North African state in more than 20 years.

Following talks in Downing Street with Abdul Rahman Mohammed Shalgam, Mr Straw said the visit was "tangible proof" of the improving relations between the two countries.

He said the talks had covered a wide range of issues including "enhanced co-operation" on resolving the outstanding issues surrounding the murder of Wpc Yvonne Fletcher outside the Libyan embassy in London in 1984.

He also raised the prospect that Prime Minister Tony Blair could visit Libya to meet the country's leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

Speaking about the prospect of a visit by Mr Blair to the Libyan capitalTripoli, Mr Straw said: "We have discussed that. We are hoping that a visit canbe arranged as soon as is convenient."

Mr Shalgam said that their talks represented a "real breakthrough" in bilateral relations.

He acknowledged that the countries had had their differences in the past, but said that Libya had now moved on.

"Things have changed. We have the courage to review our politics and directions. The caravan is moving on," he said.

Today's talks, which also included a brief meeting between Mr Blair and Mr Shalgam, followed the announcement in December by the Libyans that they would be dismantling their banned weapons of mass destruction programme.

Mr Straw described the Libyan move as a "courageous step".

He defended moves to normalise relations with the Libyans despite Tripoli's past involvement in the Lockerbie bombings and in supplying weapons to the IRA, as well as the killing of WPC Fletcher.

He acknowledged that the moves would be difficult for the relatives of those who had suffered as a result of the past activities of the Libyan regime.

"What I hope the grieving relatives and friends may understand is that the normalisation of the relationship with Libya is one that has been developed by stages," he said.

"Although I would fully understand if the views of the relatives and friends were different, I hope they and the wider public will be able to see that it is in everybody's interest for us to have normalised relations."

Asked whether Mr Blair might meet Col Gaddafi, the premier's official spokesman said: "The important thing is we take this step by step.

"This meeting today comes at a time when progress is genuinely being made on the weapons of mass destruction issue. That progress needs to continue."

Questioned over Wpc Fletcher's murder, Mr Straw's Libyan counterpart AbdulRahman Mohammed Shalgam told a news conference after the talks that they wouldwork on the issue with "transparency and honesty".

Speaking through a translator, he said: "There are many bilateral issues between ourselves and Britain.

"We met our officials in Libya - our concerned officials - Libyan police and British police officers.

"We have discussed this issue. We are going to work on this issue as we are going to work on other issues - with a spirit of co-operation, transparency and honesty."