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Pariah Libya comes out of the cold

Tripoli, Dec. 20 (Reuters): A pariah for decades, Libya asked today to come in from the cold after a surprise announcement that it was abandoning illicit weapons programmes.

As the US and Britain promised rewards, Tripoli acted swiftly to give proof of its commitment to the world at large. Libyan officials flew to Vienna for talks with the UN nuclear watchdog, an international diplomat said.

Almost 15 years to the day since his agents brought down a Pan Am airliner over Lockerbie and eight months after US and British troops toppled Saddam Hussein on suspicion of developing banned weapons, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi has now opened the prospect of an end to sanctions and a return of US oil firms.

Britain said Libya had been close to making an atomic bomb. Details of Tripoli’s weapons capabilities were vague. Some US officials cautioned that Libya’s move on arms, the culmination of secret talks with London and Washington launched around the time of the Iraq invasion and concluded a week after US forces captured Saddam, still left it too early to say when, or if, Washington will lift sanctions.

Britain suggested the Iraqi leader’s fate could have been different if he had cooperated. US President George W. Bush, who also accuses Iran and North Korea of seeking nuclear arms, said he hoped others would follow the example set by Gaddafi, a man one of Bush’s predecessors called a “mad dog”. European critics of the invasion of Iraq remarked pointedly that it showed peaceful diplomacy could bring about disarmament.

“Libya wants to solve all problems and we want to focus on development and advancing our country. This (weapons) programme does not benefit our people or country,” foreign minister Mohamed Abderrhmane Chalgam told Al-Jazeera television. “We want to have ties with America and Britain because this is in the interest of our people,” Chalgam said.

Libyan officials were flying to Vienna for talks on Tripoli’s nuclear programme with the International Atomic Energy Agency today, an international diplomat said. Libya said yesterday it was ready to accept strict IAEA nuclear safeguards.

The head of Arab League said Israel, widely believed to have a nuclear weapons capability, should do the same as Libya.

Libya’s move came ahead of tomorrow’s anniversary of the Christmas 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Scotland that killed 270 people. British relatives of the victims welcomed the news that dialogue had brought disarmament, Tripoli’s second dramatic step this year to rejoin the international community.

Libya was freed of broader UN sanctions this year after accepting responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing and paying billions to victims’ families. Washington left its sanctions in place, alleging Tripoli sought biological and chemical weapons.

US warplanes bombed Tripoli in 1986 after the bombing of a West Berlin nightclub frequented by American soldiers. The US attack hit Gaddafi’s home, killing his adopted infant daughter. Washington bans most economic activity and bars visits to Libya using American passports without US government permission.

Echoing London and Washington, Russia, France and Germany — opponents of the Iraq war — praised Gaddafi, whom US President Ronald Reagan once called a “mad dog”.

“He needs to be applauded in unqualified terms for what he has done. I believe it is very statesmanlike and courageous,” British foreign secretary Jack Straw told BBC radio today.

“If Saddam had come to us a year ago or more... then the situation in Iraq would have been a very different one.”

While praising Gaddafi, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin urged Libya to “implement without delay” compensation for families of victims of a 1989 bombing of a French airliner.

US officials said Libya’s nuclear programme was “much further advanced” than thought and it acknowledged cooperating with North Korea to develop long-range Scud missiles.

Libya said its move showed commitment to “building a world free of weapons of mass destruction and all sorts of terrorism”. Bush immediately praised Libya, saying: “Its good faith will be returned.” He said Tripoli's progress would be monitored.

“Today’s announcement shows that we can fight this menace through more than purely military means; that we can defeat it peacefully,” said British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

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