From 'mad dog' to puppy, Gaddafi welcomes Blair and brings desert country in from the cold

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The Independent Online

The face of what was once the world's most feared dictator peered out of the open door of a battered Bedouin tent, pitched in an untidy encampment by the side of a dusty road running through the cereal crops just south of the Libyan capital, Tripoli.

The face of what was once the world's most feared dictator peered out of the open door of a battered Bedouin tent, pitched in an untidy encampment by the side of a dusty road running through the cereal crops just south of the Libyan capital, Tripoli.

Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, famous for keeping world leaders waiting for hours before admitting them to the traditional tents which are a symbol of his desert upbringing, emerged into the hazy sunlight as he waited for Tony Blair's motorcade to arrive.

Two minutes later, at 12.10pm Tripoli time, Mr Blair strode across the dandelion-covered verge to shake the 62-year-old dictator by the hand, his smile indicating that one of the world's most reviled pariah states was coming in from the cold.

There was no sign of the kiss on both cheeks that had been rumoured to be Col Gaddafi's favoured greeting. Sources said that had never been discussed with their hosts.

Col Gaddafi, dressed in floor-length black robes, brown embroidered tunic and traditional cloth hat, greeted the Prime Minister, breaking from Arabic to English, asking him about his flight.

Mr Blair, very much the Western leader in navy suit and electric blue tie said: "It's good to be here after so many months."

Col Gaddafi replied with a reference to the war on terror. He told Mr Blair: "You did a lot of fighting on this issue. You look exhausted." Mr Blair said simply: "There has been a lot to do."

"You look young," Col Gaddafi told his guest, in a model of diplomatic small talk. Mr Blair replied: "That's not what the British press said. They like to continuously publish pictures of what I looked like 10 years ago and show how I have aged." Col Gaddafi, sympathised: "You don't look like that to me." But Mr Blair said: "You age a lot in this job". Thus began more than an hour of talks between the two men in Col Gaddafi's tent, his favoured greeting place for foreign dignitaries, visible to the assembled press and officials as the warm scented breeze blew through the open doorway.

The atmosphere was relaxed, with security handled with a light tough for one of the great closed countries of the world.

Across the road, a herd of the Libyan leader's camels grunted as they grazed on the roadside, a Libyan security official using a stick to wave them away from the two leaders talking just feet away.

Mr Blair, who was suffering from the after-effects of a heavy cold, had landed at Tripoli 40 minutes earlier, to be greeted by the Prime Minister, Shukri Ghanem, and the Foreign Minister, Abdul Rahmen Shalgam. A seven-year-old boy kissed him on both cheeks on the red and gold carpet and presented him with a huge bouquet of yellow and pink blooms in front of a 50-strong guard of troops.

Mr Blair's motorcade sped through the dusty, low rise streets of Tripoli past bemused looking onlookers and posters of their leader to what the Libyans called al-mahal, or "the place" on the outskirts of the city where Col Gaddafi had made his encampment.

It was a strange setting for a meeting which, only a few months ago, would have been regarded as unthinkable. Seven sun-bleached and rather worn beige and khaki tents in the traditional Bedouin style were pitched between fields of cereal, anchored down by rough concrete blocks. Inside, the tents were gaudily decorated in a print of pineapple plants and camels, traditional woven bowls hanging on the walls. Plain strip lights were attached to the tent posts, and red patterned carpets covered the floors.

Outside the tent set aside for the meeting was a small charcoal fire burning in an iron grate. Four cheap white plastic chairs like refugees from a suburban garden stood incongruously outside. A small table outside bore teapots and two plastic bottles of mineral water.

Mr Blair sat in an upholstered wooden armchair opposite the Libyan dictator as they talked, Mr Blair sitting forward, listening intently while his host sprawled on his chair, legs crossed.

One hour and 10 minutes later, the two men emerged and walked the few yards to a second khaki tent where they sat on overstuffed armchairs for an official lunch of couscous with fish fresh from the Mediterranean, the menu selected as authentic Libyan fare inoffensive to the Western palate.

Meanwhile, Mr Shalgam briefed journalists on trade, his country's hatred of al-Qa'ida and willingness to join the global fight against international terrorism as he presented his country as a new partner with Britain and the West.

One reporter asked: "Do you accept responsibility for the Lockerbie bombings?" Mr Shalgam replied: "We have closed that file. The past is the past."

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