Gaddafi comes back in from the diplomatic cold as thaw brings for rest of the world

t LIBYA 15 years of isolation brought to an end as first Western leader comes calling on Tripoli with oilmen and carpetbaggers hard on his heels
Click to follow
LIBYA'S EMERGENCE from international isolation takes a big step forward today with the arrival of the Italian Prime Minister, Massimo D'Alema, the first Western leader to pay a visit for 15 years.

Crowning Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's drive to bring his country out of the diplomatic cold, Mr D'Alema will fly to Tripoli international airport, now slowly returning to life after a seven-year United Nations air embargo. Flights were banned in 1992 to force Libya to hand over two nationals suspected of involvement in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing.

With sanctions now suspended, Italy, the former colonial power in Libya, has wasted no time in leading a European thaw in relations. The Italian Foreign Minister, Lamberto Dini, flew to Tripoli in April, the day after UN sanctions were lifted. "Libya will become Italy's bridge to Africa," Colonel Gaddafi told him at the time, "and for Libya, Italy will be its door into Europe".

According to rumours in Rome, Libyan officials have asked that Mr D'Alema should personally invite Colonel Gaddafi to make a reciprocal visit to Italy, which ruled Libya between 1911 and 1943. Although the request has not been officially confirmed, such a visit to a key member of the European Union and Nato would be a diplomatic coup for the Libyan leader and his policy of greater openness.

Britain is joining the thaw in relations with Libya. A new British ambassador, Richard Dalton, is expected in Tripoli later this month, after Libya's payment of compensation to the family of Yvonne Fletcher, the policewoman killed in 1984 by shots fired from inside the Libyan People's Bureau in central London.

The Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, announced last week that the payment removed "the last obstacle to the restoration of full diplomatic relations", broken off more than 15 years ago.

Earlier this year, Tripoli also paid compensation to the families of 170 people who died when a French aircraft exploded over the desert in Niger in 1989, the year after the Lockerbie bombing. A French court had sentenced six Libyans, including Colonel Gaddafi's brother-in-law, to life imprisonment in absentia for their role in the bombing.

European companies are also clamouring to do business with Libya, which needs foreign investment in its oil industry and to help to put its aircraft, grounded for seven years, back safely into international skies. Libya is also hoping to lure tourists to its well-preserved, now deserted, Roman ruins. A poster in the Wahat hotel in central Tripoli invites people - in English - to visit "the Great Libyan Jamahiriya", or Republic of the Masses.

The new approach appears to be playing well with themasses. "It feels good to make contact with the world again," said Sadeq Saoud, a mechanical engineer. "People can travel again easily for work and medical treatment, and we can have tourists come here - we have 1,000km of nice beaches. We want peace with the world."

As relations with the West have warmed, Libya's leader is also turning his hand to peace-making within Africa. A joint peace drive with Egypt this summer to try to end the continent's longest-running civil war, in Sudan, added to a growing portfolio of peace initiatives stemming from Tripoli.

Yesterday, peace with Libya's southern neighbour, Chad, was the talk of the capital. Chad's President, Idriss Deby, was here heading a 300- strong delegation to celebrate the ninth anniversary of his coming to power. Libya fought a bitter war with the previous Chadian government in the Eighties. But yesterday, the Hall of the People in Tripoli echoed with chants of unity, as Colonel Gaddafi and Mr Deby addressed a throng of Chadians, Libyan officers in olive-green uniforms, white-robed tribal leaders and diplomats. Relatives of Libyans who died in the war were flown to Tripoli from all over the country for the ceremony. The Libyan leader, dressed in salmon pink robes with a matching hat, spoke at length on his favourite theme, African unity, a cause he has now taken up after years of espousing Arab nationalism. "Africans must put their shoulders together to build a united Africa, strong like the European Union or the United States," he said, playing his new role of the continent's elder statesman.

The theme was reinforced by a huge map of Africa hanging in the hall, with Libya coloured green and fringed with gold. Thirty years in power, and changing world events, have not dimmed Colonel Gaddafi's revolutionary rhetoric. There was no liberation movement in the world that his country had not supported, he boasted. Libya would be ready to do so again he said "to defend the cause of freedom and defeat the common enemy" - presumably a reference to American "imperialism". The door may be open, but Washington does not yet appear to be welcome.