Libyan leader's unique brand of diplomacy has Italy spellbound

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The Independent Online

Could Colonel Gaddafi, who is now 68, be planning to retire to Italy? The visit by the Libyan tyrant, which climaxed yesterday in a meeting – in his sleeping tent – with Silvio Berlusconi, and a demonstration by the 27 Berber horses he brought with him, was his fourth to the former colonial master in a little over a year.

And although he continues to look and behave like a walk-on character in an opera buffa, there are sneaking hints that he enjoys hanging out in Rome quite as much as any other tourist. On Sunday he threw his entourage into confusion when he decided on a whim to visit Campo de' Fiori for a cappuccino. He then strolled across the street for a look at Piazza Navona, blowing kisses at the crowd mesmerised by his unique collection of wrinkles and eye-pouches.

For the rest, the visit was the usual Gaddafi cocktail of impudence and hard trading. Many statesmen from the Islamic world have visited Rome down the years, but it is doubtful that any of them entertained the idea of assembling hundreds of pouting Roman lovelies to hear the message that "Europe should be Islamic" and that they themselves should convert.

Very few out of the 700 agreed to do so. One who did, Rea Beko, aged 27, admitted that she was brought up in Islam-majority Albania until the age of 15 and was already reading the Koran when she was a little girl. "My boyfriend said, finally you've covered up," she giggled.

So the event was a stunt, but an effective one: no doubt for the television audience back home in Tripoli, proof that their leader was making good, religious use of Ramadan – and equally efficient as a way of making mischief in Italy, where the xenophobic Northern League and other allies of Mr Berlusconi united to denounce Colonel Gaddafi's cheek. "Islam doesn't come in peace but to conquer us!" thundered one Northern League senator.

The proselytisation effort was "merely folklore", Mr Berlusconi insisted. The fact is that he and Colonel Gaddafi have long recognised each other as soul brothers in a world of diplomacy which considers both of them to be outrageous imposters. Way back in 1994, when Mr Berlusconi made his sensational entrance on the Italian political stage, becoming premier for the first time, albeit briefly, Colonel Gaddafi was quick to spot a fellow spirit. "I and Berlusconi were made for each other," he declared, "because we are both revolutionaries".

Their courtship culminated in the treaty of friendship and co-operation, signed two years ago and celebrated yesterday. To compensate for the damage inflicted during the colonial period, Italy agreed to build a hospital and pay €5bn (£4bn) over 20 years, to be delivered in the form of a 1,000-mile autostrada crossing Libya – though one Italian commentator calculated that the true cost of the road could be 10 times as much.

The other plank of the agreement mandated Libya to stop would-be immigrants leaving its coast bound for Sicily, and to repatriate those who did. Libya has kept its word on this, and the numbers arriving in Lampedusa in leaky boats have plummeted. Good news for Mr Berlusconi's government – but very bad for those fleeing war in Somalia and elsewhere. Yesterday Amnesty International urged Mr Berlusconi to ask Colonel Gaddafi hard questions about his human rights records. But it is unlikely that Mr Berlusconi took the hint.

So different in many ways, in their views on religion and plastic surgery for example, the two leaders have certainly proved revolutionaries in their use of buffoonery as a weapon of mass distraction. Yesterday they concluded the conviviality with a dinner to celebrate Italian-Libyan friendship. The nature of their conversation was sadly unrecorded.