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Gaddafi's 40th turns into a diplomatic minefield

Europe's leaders are staying away in droves but nothing will halt Libya's biggest party, writes Daniel Howden in Tripoli

Britain has refused to reveal who it will send to the biggest party in Libya's history, a celebration of the rise to power of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in a coup d'etat 40 years ago.

With London desperate to avoid further embarrassment in the wake of allegations that it supported the release of the Lockerbie bomber in return for trade deals, no decision had been made about who would represent the UK at the lavish and potentially controversial carnival in Tripoli.

Officials refused to "speculate" who London would send after evidence emerged that the Justice Secretary Jack Straw had sent a letter to his Scottish counterpart two years ago saying it was in the UK's "overwhelming interest" to include the Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi in a mooted prisoner release programme.

A week of events on a grand scale kicks off tonight in Tripoli with a massive equestrian display at the same military airport where Megrahi was given a hero's welcome after his release on compassionate grounds by the Scottish authorities.

Although the precise details of what will happen at the celebrations have been kept secret, the released prisoner is not expected to attend. Megrahi was reported to be on his death bed last night at a Tripoli hospital. He is now "too sick" to answer questions, according to his family.

Suffering from advanced prostate cancer, he was pictured by Channel 4 News wearing an oxygen mask and attached to a drip after being taken to the hospital yesterday morning.

With 24 hours to go, Tripoli has taken on the frenetic aspect of a city hosting the Olympics. Scaffolding covers the main avenues as lakes of whitewash are slapped on to exposed concrete in last-minute sprucing efforts.

Thousands of people were caught out as the capital's entire central district – which now contains what is claimed to be the largest stage in the world – was fenced off without warning. Frantic Libyans were seen crawling under the fence to get home, while others passed packages and even children to each other under the wire.

Looking down on them and staring from banners everywhere was the face of Africa's longest-serving leader, with his gaze fixed on the future in a way that suggested his determination to keep going for another 40 years. With roads sealed, the din of motorists' horns was only drowned by the deafening roar from rehearsing French and Italian aerobatic jet fighters.

The diplomatic fall-out from Megrahi's release and reception has cast a shadow over the epic anniversary party. Italy's Silvio Berlusconi will be the only EU leader prepared to lend his public backing to Colonel Gaddafi with a one-day visit to Tripoli yesterday. And even the Italian premier, whose excuse for the trip was the anniversary of a friendship accord, said he would leave before the party began.

With a host of controversial African leaders from Zimbabwe's pariah Robert Mugabe to Sudan's indicted Omar al-Bashir due to be joined by the likes of Venezuela's showman President Hugo Chavez, wary Western leaders have withdrawn from what is seen as Libya's international coming-out party.

The self-styled "brother leader" was taking no chances with the bulk of his VIP guest list and staged an extraordinary African Union summit to coincide with the event, guaranteeing the presence of many African leaders.

The money-no-object show continues tomorrow with a military parade which should see military divers climbing out of the Mediterranean to join tanks, fighter jets and troop formations in Libya's answer to May Day in Red Square. For the 700,000 or more who make it into the fenced-off Green Square, a three-hour spectacular on Libyan history awaits from a multinational troupe directed by the French director Martin Arnaud.

With a a staggering arsenal of fireworks due to be set off over the seafront, the official programme predicts that "the Libyan people will be enflamed by the Brother Leader" – cue another of Colonel Gaddafi's marathon speeches.