French president pays visit to Libya

Thursday, November 25, 2004

TRIPOLI, Libya -- French President Jacques Chirac, on the first visit to Libya by a French head of state in more than half a century, said Wednesday that turbulent times were over and a "true partnership" was ahead.

Chirac, applauding "an exceptional moment" for the two nations, met for an hour with Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and spelled out the business benefits France hopes to achieve in this oil-rich North African nation.

No French leader had visited Libya since it gained independence from Italy in 1951.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who was also visiting, held talks with Gadhafi as well. Although Chavez's visit coincided with Chirac's, officials ruled out a possibility of a three-way meeting.

Gadhafi, who has received numerous foreign leaders in recent months since the international community began warming to the longtime pariah, presented Chavez with a prize for human rights that is named after the Libyan leader.

Libya, once considered a sponsor of terrorism, pursued policies that put it in the ranks of so-called rogue states. Gadhafi's abandonment last year of weapons of mass destruction and a $2.7 billion settlement for the 1988 Lockerbie airline bombing helped bring Libya in from the cold.

France had particular problems with Libya, from its occupation of northern Chad in the 1980s to the downing of a French passenger jet in 1989 that killed 170 people, including 54 French. Tripoli's agreement to pay compensation unlocked the door to normalization.

In October, the European Union ended 12 years of economic sanctions against Libya. Chirac, on a 24-hour stay, was the fourth European leader to visit Libya in recent months.

Tripoli "has recently made decisive choices," Chirac said.

Chirac made clear that France expects a "deep and confident political dialogue on subjects we cherish" and a strengthening of the French business presence in Libya with French participation in energy, telecommunications and transport.

Roughly two dozen French business leaders accompanied Chirac, including executives from French oil giant Total, gas firm Gaz de France, combat aircraft manufacturer Dassault Aviation and defense group Thales.

Total Group was among many European oil companies that remained in Libya despite U.S. and U.N. sanctions imposed on the country in the 1980s.

French trade with Libya stands at a yearly $2.5 billion, including an annual $2 billion of Libyan oil exports to France.

Chirac said France wants to "accompany the efforts of Libya to take its place on the world scene."

However, friction within the European Union remains. The head of the European Commission said Wednesday that closer ties between the EU and Libya depend on the fate of five Bulgarian nurses facing a death sentence there for allegedly infecting more than 400 children with the AIDS virus.

Bulgaria's government and human rights groups accuse Libya of concocting the story to cover up unsafe hospital practices.

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