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Gadhafi visits Moscow for energy, military talks

world Updated: Nov 01, 2008 09:13 IST

Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, making his first visit to post-Soviet Russia, hopes to clinch a series of major arms deals in another sign of strengthening ties between the Cold War allies.

A leading Russian newspaper, meanwhile, reported that Gadhafi, whose three-day visit began on Friday, was prepared to offer Russia's navy access to Libya's Mediterranean port of Benghazi. The newspaper said Gadhafi, fearing another US attack, favors a Russian military presence in Libya.

Gadhafi ended years of Libya's international isolation in 2003 when he renounced terrorism and gave up efforts to develop nuclear weapons. The same year, Libya accepted responsibility for the 1988 Pan Am airplane bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, that killed 270 people, and agreed to pay compensation to families. Since then, Western countries have stepped up oil and other investments with Libya, and European arms makers have begun competing for Libya's orders. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also met Gadhafi in Libya last month, the highest-level US official to visit Tripoli in 55 years.

This year, Russia has moved significantly to rebuild ties which withered after the 1991 Soviet collapse.

During a visit in April, then-President Vladimir Putin agreed to write off $4.5 billion in Libyan debt in exchange for lucrative deals in energy and arms. In return, Russia landed a 2.2 billion euro ($2.8 billion) contract for state-owned Russian Railways and Russia's gas monopoly Gazprom signed a deal to develop six prospective oil and gas fields in Libya.

The Interfax news agency said on Friday that prospective deals under discussion include the Libyan purchase of S-300, Tor-M1 and Buk-M1 air defense missile systems, two squadrons of Su-30 and MiG-29 fighter jets, several dozen combat helicopters, tanks, rocket launchers and a diesel submarine.

Interfax said Russia also plans to sign contracts to modernize aging Soviet-era weapons in Libyan arsenals which lack spare parts. A Kremlin official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks, said Friday that Russia and Libya could even cooperate in the peaceful use of nuclear energy, but wouldn't give details.

The leading business daily Kommersant reported Friday there had been no breakthrough on weapons deals in the runup to Gadhafi's visit.

But it said an offer to allow Russia ships to use the Libyan port of Benghazi would soothe Moscow's irritation over slow progress in the weapons talks.

"During these talks the colonel intends to raise the issue of opening a base for Russia's navy in the Libyan port of Benghazi," the paper wrote.

Russia has sought to revive a naval presence in the Mediterranean and has looked toward historical allies in the region, such as Syria, as potential bases or ports. A Russian naval squadron on its way to the Caribbean recently stopped in Tripoli. "The Libyan leader thinks that a Russian military presence will serve as a guarantee against an attack from the United States, which, despite all its conciliatory gestures, isn't in a hurry to embrace Gadhafi," Kommersant wrote.

Kremlin officials refused to comment on the report. Kommersant said Libya also urged the Kremlin to back plans for a natural gas cartel that would involve Algeria, Qatar, Libya, the countries of Central Asia and perhaps Iran. Such an OPEC-like organization would strengthen Moscow's energy leverage over Europe. Earlier this month, Russia, Iran and Qatar made the first serious moves toward forming such a grouping.

Russia faces competition from Ukraine for supplying arms to Libya. Gadhafi is expected to visit Ukraine after his trip to Russia.

Gadhafi, who last visited Moscow in 1985, met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev for dinner Friday at Meiendorf Castle, the regal Russian government residence outside Moscow.