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Trying to shed pariah status, Libya warms to West

The US may consider removing Libya from the list of sponsors ofterrorism.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 13, 1999



TRIPOLI, LIBYA

Some are calling it Libya's own perestroika. Others refer to recent events as a change of heart designed to erase Libya's image in the West as a terrorist state.

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The goal? After decades of erratic, troublesome, and militant anti-West behavior, Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi wants to shake off his pariah status and be taken seriously as a regional leader, diplomats and analysts say.

"He wants to change, because the world is changing," says a Western diplomat in the Libyan capital, Tripoli. "We in the West look at Qaddafi as a bad guy wearing a black hat, and now he wants to be a good guy wearing a white hat. We don't know how permanent it is, but step by step [the Libyans] are trying to clear the way."

The West has long viewed Libya as one of the globe's most dangerous nations. Terrorism linked to Libya in the 1980s compelled then-President Reagan to refer to Colonel Qaddafi as the "mad dog of the Middle East."

Handover of suspects

But that image appears to be changing. The catalyst was the handover last April of two Libyan suspects in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. The suspects are scheduled for trial in the Netherlands next February. After the handover, United Nations sanctions that prohibited air travel and froze Libyan assets abroad were suspended, causing a rush of euphoria in Tripoli. Libyan moves to accommodate France and Britain have also caught Washington's attention.

Despite official denials - and President Clinton's reassurance to Congress in July that he would maintain unilateral US sanctions "fully and effectively" - the Clinton administration is known to be considering removing Libya from the State Department list of state sponsors of terrorism.

That move would help American oil companies reengage in Libya's lucrative oil sector for the first time since they were ordered out by Mr. Reagan in 1986.

On April 15 that year, Reagan ordered airstrikes against Libya as a "swift and effective retribution" for its alleged role in the bombing of Berlin's La Belle discothque, which wounded 200 and killed two US servicemen and a Turkish civilian. The attack was the culmination of a long debate within the administration about how to strike back at international terrorism.

Not forgotten

Qaddafi, who 30 years ago seized power in a bloodless coup, may be mellowing in some of his anti-American rhetoric. But the Libyan leader still takes visiting leaders on a de rigueur tour of the Bab al-Azizzia barracks, a primary US target where Libyans say that Qaddafi's adopted daughter was killed.

Still, to many here those days of support for terror attacks and radical, militant Palestinian groups are over. "Libya has sworn off terrorism, for sure," says a senior Western diplomat in Tripoli. "Libyans know they are under a microscope now, and they do not want to step from the path."

The US State Department's annual report on global terrorism notes that Libya has "not been implicated in any international terrorist act for several years." A congressional report last month, citing media and other sources, said that "Libyan sponsorship of terrorism has declined to the point at which the administration is considering removing it from the list."

Groups that allegedly practiced terrorism in the past and used Libya for training as a haven have not been active in the country for several years. One of the most notorious figures linked to terrorism, whose nom de guerre is Abu Nidal, left Libya under mysterious circumstances over the last year.

A US official met a Libyan diplomat in June for the first time since 1981, the report noted, in "a signal of US appreciation of Libya's apparent moderation." The administration in July approved a visit by a group of US oil companies to inspect frozen assets in Libya.