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Rice meets Gadhafi on historic Libya visit

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice meets Libyan leader Moamer Gadhafi on a landmark visit to Tripoli, heralding a new chapter in Washington's reconciliation with the former enemy state.

world Updated: Sep 06, 2008 09:24 IST

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi on a landmark visit to Tripoli on Friday, heralding a new chapter in Washington's reconciliation with the former enemy state.

Rice at a news conference afterwards said the two countries had decided "to move forward in a positive way" and deal "as well as we can with issues of the past."

"After many, many years it is a good thing that the US and Libya found a way forward," she said, adding that this had become possible because Libya had made some "strategic choices."

"This is a good time for a constructive relationship between the US and Libya to emerge," the top US diplomat said.

Her Libyan counterpart, Abdelrahman Mohammed Shalgam, speaking at the joint news conference held early on Saturday morning, said the time of confrontation with the United States is over.

"The world has changed," Shalgam said, adding that the very fact Rice had made the groundbreaking visit to Libya and had held talks with Kadhafi was proof of this change.

"The time of confrontation is over. There may still be differences of opinion but this will not endanger the relationship between (Libya and the US)," the minister added.

Rice earlier described her brief visit the first to the oil-rich north African country by a US secretary of state in more than half a century as "historic" and a sign the United States does not have permanent foes.

"That is not to say that everything has by any means been settled between the United States and Libya. There is a long way to go," she told reporters travelling with her.

"But I do believe that it has demonstrated that the United States doesn't have permanent enemies. It demonstrates that when countries are prepared to make strategic changes in direction the United States is prepared to respond."

Diplomats said Rice wanted Iran and North Korea to take note that they could benefit from rapprochement with the West, highlighting Libya's commitment to abandon nuclear, biological and chemical weapons programmes.

"It is a beginning, it is an opening, it is not, I think, the end of the story," Rice said.

Rice met Kadhafi once described by former US president Ronald Reagan as a "mad dog" at his residence in Tripoli, Bab al Azizia, which was hit in US bombing raids ordered by Reagan in 1986.

The mercurial Libyan leader did not shake Rice's hand and instead touched his heart.

After the talks they shared an Iftar meal which breaks the fast during the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan.

Rice's visit underscores the warming of ties following Kadhafi's dramatic 2003 announcement he was abandoning weapons of mass destruction programmes a move which came just months after the toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq.

It comes less than a month after the two governments reached an agreement on a plan to compensate US victims of Libyan attacks and Libyan victims of US reprisals.

Both sides acknowledged they have differences and Rice said she had raised with Kadhafi the issue of human rights, including the case of jailed dissident Fathi al-Jahmi, 66.

"It is important to have dialogue, including on issues of human rights," she said at the news conference.

"As this relationship goes forward and deepens it will continue to be important for us to have transparency and to talk about these issues in a respectful way."

Shalgam, however, clearly angry at the question raised at the news conference, said Jahmi was receiving medical treatment at a private clinic.

"We care about our own people," the minister said. "We do need not anybody to come put pressure on us or give us lectures."

US-Libya ties were suspended in 1981 when Washington put Kadhafi's regime on its list of state sponsors of terrorism. It was forced even further into isolation after the bombing of a US airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988.

The White House said Rice's visit marked a "new chapter" and that cooperation could expand in areas including education and culture, commerce, science and technology, and security and human rights.

The last US secretary of state to visit was John Foster Dulles in 1953, who met King Idris the ruler ousted in a bloodless military coup led in 1969 by Kadhafi, now the Arab world's longest serving leader.

Last year, Kadhafi proclaimed his love for "Leezza," telling Al-Jazeera television: "I support my darling black African woman. I admire and am very proud of the way she leans back and gives orders to the Arab leaders."

Kadhafi's December 2003 announcement followed secret talks with the United States and Britain and returned Libya to the international fold after years of isolation with a string of Western leaders treading a path to his door.