EU ends arms trade ban with Libya

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The EU's foreign ministers yesterday end 18 years of restrictions on trade and weapons sales to Libya, and moved closer to easing a ban on arms exports to China.

At a meeting in Luxembourg the EU effectively normalised relations with Tripoli, removing a moratorium on arms sales imposed in 1986, and repealing trade sanctions that had already been suspended.

They also came closer to accepting calls from Paris to axe a 15-year-old arms embargo imposed on China after the bloody repression against pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square.

Under pressure from Washington, which wants the EU to keep the ban, Britain was one of those that helped stall an immediate move to lift the embargo. However the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, went further than before by declaring publicly that he is not opposed in principle. "We are not in any sense quote 'against' the lifting of the embargo," Mr Straw said in Luxembourg yesterday, "but it has got to be done in a proper and sensible way and that is the process which has been agreed by the whole of the European Union."

Privately the Foreign Office increasingly resents the interference from Washington but accepts the need to stall on lifting the embargo on China in the run-up to the US presidential elections next month. One British source argued: "It is completely illogical for the US to put pressure on the EU when Israel is the second largest provider of arms into China. It is on shaky foundations in giving orders to Europe not to consider lifting the embargo."

An EU diplomat added: "The British were never opposed fundamentally but they have been subjected to such pressure from the US that they are very cautious."

The French president, Jacques Chirac, has called for an end to the embargo during a visit to Bejing in which he signed commercial contracts worth €4bn. France sees China as an important strategic partner and believes that it should not be left in the category of the handful of countries, like Burma and Zimbabwe, that have specific measures against them.

One of the arguments in favour of caution is that the EU is trying to tighten a code of conduct governing all arms sales, which would still apply to Bejing if the embargo is lifted.

In Luxembourg France's European affairs minister, Claudie Haigneré said that policy was evolving and that a "positive signal" could be sent to Bejing when at December's EU-China summit.

Bernard Bot, foreign minister of the Netherlands which holds the EU presidency added: "It's clear that we need more time to consider the situation, but we hope to be able to indicate a positive orientation towards the lifting."

Mr Bot said there was no formal link between a lifting of the arms deal and an improvement in human rights. At the same time he argued that the release of the last of those imprisoned following Tianamen Square would be well received as a "gesture of goodwill".

The decision to normalise relations with Libya followed pressure from Italy which wants to provide Tripoli with equipment to to patrol its coastline and catch the hundreds of illegal migrants who try to reach Europe by sea each month . The US lifted its trade embargo on Libya last month.

The EU and the US imposed sanctions on Libya in 1986 in retaliation for what they saw as Libyan support for terrorist groups. The US lifted its trade embargo on Libya last month.