Arms embargo on Libya should be lifted, says EU

Libya took another big step towards respectability yesterday when the European Union's most senior diplomats agreed that an arms embargo against Tripoli should be lifted.

Libya took another big step towards respectability yesterday when the European Union's most senior diplomats agreed that an arms embargo against Tripoli should be lifted.

The move, which needs to be ratified by EU ministers next month, is the latest step in Libya's improving relationship with the West, following its decision earlier this year to axe controversial weapons programmes.

Yesterday's initiative came after pressure from Britain and Italy which want to provide Libya with helicopters, boats, communications systems and other equipment such as metal detectors to help fight illegal immigration. With its long coastline, Italy is one of the main targets for immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa on their way to Europe.

The Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi has argued that the arms embargo, imposed in 1986, has made it impossible for his border guards to stem the tide.

Once an international pariah, Colonel Gaddafi has now hosted a meeting with Tony Blair, and visited the European Commission in Brussels. The lifting of the arms embargo is the latest reward for Libya's decision to dismantle its weapons programme.

Yesterday EU ambassadors also agreed that economic sanctions, suspended since 1999, should be lifted formally.

Several EU countries remain worried about human rights in Libya, and Rome initially pushed for permission to supply the Libyans with a limited number of items, rather than pressing for the whole embargo to be lifted. But Britain led calls for the end of all EU restrictions on arms sales, and won over wavering nations including Austria and the Czech Republic.

As a quid pro quo, EU ministers are expected to agree a declaration on human rights, including a reference to the plight of a group of five Bulgarian nurses held in Tripoli accused of spreading Aids.

EU officials said that arms exports to Libya would still be limited by an EU code of conduct barring the sale of equipment that could be used in domestic repression or regional conflicts.

The Italian Interior Minister, Giuseppe Pisanu, will visit Libya within days to negotiate on the plan to provide equipment for border control. The ministry has said that more than 9,700 illegal immigrants, many from North Africa, have arrived on its shores so far this year.

The US has ended a trade embargo on Libya but left in place some terrorism-related sanctions. Behind the scenes EU member states, like the US, are keen to invest in developing Libya's substantial oil reserves.

Tripoli's ties with the West have been helped by an agreement last year to accept civil responsibility and make pay-outs for the 1988 Lockerbie bombing which killed 270 people. Libya has also signed compensation accords with families of the 170 killed in 1989 when a French UTA airliner was blown up over the Sahara in Niger.

The EU is also discussing allowing Libya to join the Barcelona process, a format for dialogue with Mediterranean countries. However that cannot happen unless Tripoli recognises Israel's right to exist.

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