Carrying a heavy load of history, Libya's Qaddafi arrives in Italy

Qaddafi and Berlusconi are set to discuss energy and immigration deals, but a colonial past overhangs the meetings.

Max Rossi/Reuters
Libya's leader Muammar Qaddafi (l.) speaks with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi at the Chigi palace in Rome June 10, 2009.

MILAN, ITALY – Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi landed in Rome Wednesday, marking his first visit to Italy and offering evidence of a rapid diplomatic thaw between the energy-rich North African nation and Europe.

“A sad chapter in history has been closed,” Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi proclaimed as Mr. Qaddafi (also spelled Gaddafi) arrived.

But history hasn't entirely been forgotten. Some here remain furious over Libya's expulsion of 20,000 Italians in 1970 in retaliation for Italy's colonization of Libya decades earlier. And pinned on the Libyan leader's military uniform was a photo of Omar al-Mukhtar, a Libyan freedom fighter executed by the Italians.

The two leaders will discuss a variety of trade and diplomatic agreements in coming days, most notably Italy's massive investments in Libyan gas fields and efforts by both countries to curb illegal immigration.

Many migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa arrive in Italy on boats launched from Libya. Under an agreement signed last year, Libya vowed to stop them before they reach the Italian shores (read more Monitor coverage of this here). Human rights groups say the joint patrols prevent many innocent people from troubled regions – including Darfur – from obtaining refugee status. Qaddafi's visit, says the group Human Rights Watch, “celebrates a dirty deal.”

The visit has prompted anger for other reasons, as well.

Shortly after he came to power with a military coup in 1969, Qaddafi expelled thousands of Italian citizens living in the African country and confiscated their belongings as a “deposit of the colonial reparations” owed by Italy.

“It was a very humiliating experience” recalls Tripoli-born Giovanna Ortu, president an association of Italians expelled from Libya. Ms. Ortu says she was forced to strip naked in public, along with other young women, before being deported.

Ortu and other Libyan-born Italians will meet Qaddafi in a ceremony Saturday in the Bedouin tent where he is staying – as he did during his 2007 visit to Paris (read more here) – but she says authorities invited her only on the condition she would not to present herself as an expelled Italian.

“It's all so sad," she says, "all we wanted is an apology.”

Expelled Italians are also claiming $850 million in reparations – not from Qaddafi, but rather from the Italian government.

In 2008, Berlusconi signed a post-colonial agreement with Libya, including the payment of about $5 billion for the construction of a highway. But he refused to cover the “deposit” that Qaddafi had already taken from the Italian residents in Libya.

Ortu says she bears no resentment toward Qaddafi. “I'm glad Italy and Libya are finally renewing their ties, but I cannot see why we cannot get our reparations and an apology,” she says. “We feel betrayed by history.”

The prime ministers of Britain and Italy were the first to travel to Tripoli after 2003, when Libya said it would abandon its nuclear weapons program and pay reparations to victims' families from two airliner bombings blamed on Libyan government agents. The US reestablished full diplomatic relations in 2006.

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