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Gadhafi visits Italy for first time as ties warm

Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi begins his first visit to Italy on Wednesday, evidence of warming ties between two countries whose relations suffered because of Italy's 30-year occupation of Libya and Gadhafi's expulsion of 20,000 Italians.

world Updated: Jun 10, 2009 13:37 IST

Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi begins his first visit to Italy on Wednesday, evidence of warming ties between two countries whose relations suffered because of Italy's 30-year occupation of Libya and Gadhafi's expulsion of 20,000 Italians.

Gadhafi's three-day visit is packed with speeches, official visits and meetings, including one with some of the Italians he kicked out in 1970 to punish Italy for its 1911-1941 colonization.

Giovanna Ortu, who heads an association of Italians expelled from the North African country, said the meeting will take place Saturday in a tent that has been erected for the
Libyan leader in Rome's Doria Pamphili Park.

Relations between Italy and Libya have warmed over the last few years, capped by an agreement last year for Italy to compensate Libya for its occupation. The $5 billion package involves construction projects, student grants and pensions for Libyan soldiers who served with the Italians during World War II.

In return, Libya agreed to crack down on the thousands of illegal migrants smuggled each year across the Mediterranean to Italy. The two countries have a controversial new immigration accord under which Italy repatriates migrants who set off from Libya and are intercepted before they reach Italian shores.

The United Nations refugee agency, the Vatican and aid groups have criticized the agreement as a violation of migrants' human rights since they cannot apply for asylum in Italy. Human Rights Watch said Gadhafi's Italy visit "celebrates a dirty deal."

Gadhafi is also scheduled to meet with some Italian Jews who were expelled from Libya in an anti-Jewish backlash after Israel's victory in the 1967 Middle East war. About 6,000 Libyan Jews were expelled at the time.

But the head of Rome's Jewish community, Riccardo Pacifici, questioned Gadhafi's sincerity, noting that the proposed meeting Saturday morning falls on the Jewish Sabbath, making it impossible for observant Jews to participate.

Pacifici also told the ANSA news agency that Rome's Jews want answers from Libya about the fate of a Palestinian convicted in absentia in Italy for a 1982 attack on Rome's synagogue in which a 2-year-old boy was killed and several other people were injured. The Palestinian, Abdel Osama al-Zomar, was arrested in Greece but that country refused to extradite him to Italy, sending him instead to Libya.

Premier Silvio Berlusconi seems keen to improve relations with oil-rich Libya, and has invited Gadhafi to return to Italy next month for the Group of Eight summit.

"It's a historic visit, and we want to treat it as such," Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said on the eve of Gadhafi's arrival. "We are welcoming Gadhafi knowing that we have come together in a newfound friendship and above all sharing many common interests."

Berlusconi will meet with the Libyan leader Wednesday evening.

Under Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, tens of thousands of Italians settled in the Italian colony in the 1930s, taking charge of road construction power plants and other public works. Libya declared its independence in 1951 and Gadhafi staged a coup in 1969. A year later, he expelled those Italians who were still there.

Ortu's organization has been agitating for compensation from Libya for assets that were seized at the time, demanding some euro350 million.