Blair hails Gaddafi's courage and offers 'hand in partnership'

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Tony Blair will shake the hand of the Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi today, after he hailed the dictator's "courageous" decision to give up weapons of mass destruction as a major victory in the war on international terrorism.

Tony Blair will shake the hand of the Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi today, after he hailed the dictator's "courageous" decision to give up weapons of mass destruction as a major victory in the war on international terrorism.

Speaking in Lisbon ahead of the visit, Mr Blair held out the prospect of rewards for the state which was for decades an international pariah.

Officials said Britain would offer training and advice to the Libyan armed forces and British industrial giants, including Shell and British Aerospace, were on the verge of concluding lucrative deals with the North African country.

The European arms embargo on Libya is expected to be lifted, while Britain hopes to broker new ties between Libya and the EU. British intelligence services are also co-operating with Libya on countering terrorism.

As the Prime Minister faced Tory criticism over the trip's timing, Mr Blair said: "Let us offer to states that want to renounce terrorism and the development of weapons of mass destruction our hand in partnership, as Libya has rightly and courageously decided to do. That does not mean forgetting the pain of the past. But it does mean recognising change when it happens."

Mr Blair flies to Tripoli this morning for two hours of talks with Colonel Gaddafi in his Bedouin encampment outside the city. Officials said he wanted to act quickly to help bring Libya back into the international community after its decision to give up weapons of mass destruction in December.

Libya was for decades regarded as a rogue state sponsoring international acts of terrorism, such as the Lockerbie bombing in 1988, and trying to acquire nuclear weapons. But Colonel Gaddafi had sought a return to international respectability after admitting responsibility for the downing of Pan Am flight 103 and renouncing his nuclear and chemical weapons programmes.

Mr Blair last night acknowledged that he may never heal the international divisions over the war in Iraq and cautioned that the split could harm efforts to combat terrorism.

He said: "Some, like myself, believe that the war in Iraq is all part of the same global threat to our security. Others believe, with equal passion, that the war was an unjustified provocation, or at least a diversion from the true war against terrorism."

He said it was important to set aside arguments over the war in Iraq and seek common ground in the fight against terrorism. "I came to Spain yesterday [Tuesday] from Northern Ireland, where we have worked so hard for so long to bring a durable peace in place of terrorism. I believe in trying to negotiate where negotiating can achieve peace in honourable terms," he added.

But the Conservatives denounced the trip as "astonishing", claiming it would distress the Lockerbie families.

Michael Howard, the Tory leader, said: "It is quite odd timing to go from a service which commemorates the victims of the biggest terrorist attack on Europe since Lockerbie, to go straight from there to Libya."

In the Commons, Michael Ancram, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, said: "I understand that, astonishingly, the Prime Minister will ... visit Colonel Gaddafi. This visit is highly questionable and its timing even more so. This country has suffered, especially from Libya's support for terrorism - including the murder of [WPC] Yvonne Fletcher, Libya's supply of arms to the IRA and their complicity in the murder of 200 people over Lockerbie."

But John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, recalled that the Tories held secret talks with the IRA, which led to a reduction in terrorist activities. He said: "You have to make a balance and I think the Prime Minister's got the balance right."

The Tory attack on Mr Blair's visit, denounced as "frightful opportunism" by Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, appeared to rebound when the visit was welcomed by a group representing the Lockerbie families.

Jim Swire, spokesman for the UK Families Flight 103 campaign group, said: "This is obviously the next step in a process which we have been campaigning for over the past few years."

But Kathleen Flynn, whose son, John Patrick, was killed in the Lockerbie bombing, said: "I find it insulting to the families of Pan Am 103 who lost their loved ones in this horrible crime against humanity. Now all of a sudden everything is forgiven and forgotten."

In today's meeting, Mr Blair will press Colonel Gaddafi to co-operate with British police to apprehend WPC Fletcher's killer. But Queenie Fletcher, her mother, said: "I'm not optimistic Gaddafi meeting Blair will lead to my daughter's killer being named. Gaddafi says one thing and does another."

LIBYA'S REWARDS

The biggest prize for Libya for forging links with Tony Blair and other leaders is emerging from self-imposed exile from the world community.

Other rewards include:

* TRADE It will be hoping to increase the £170m of oil a year it sells to Britain. Shell is close to a deal to explore for gas in Libyan waters

* AID Libya currently receives no aid from the UK but that is likely to change now

* DEFENCE With the arms embargo expected to be lifted soon, its armed forces will benefit from Western weaponry and training

* TOURISM Its sandy beaches and historic sites could prove lucrative

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