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Qaddafi pitches his tent in the heart of Paris

PARIS: Libyan leader Col. Moammar Qaddafi takes a giant stride toward international respectability Monday, making a visit to France likely to conclude with deals worth millions, but drawing protests including from a government minister. Qaddafi s capricious habits complicated the official choreography of the visit. First planned as a three-day stay, the Libyan leader doubled …


PARIS: Libyan leader Col. Moammar Qaddafi takes a giant stride toward international respectability Monday, making a visit to France likely to conclude with deals worth millions, but drawing protests including from a government minister.

Qaddafi s capricious habits complicated the official choreography of the visit. First planned as a three-day stay, the Libyan leader doubled his time in Paris. No complete agenda was available.

Sarkozy was to hold talks twice with Qaddafi and have dinner with him Monday night. Qaddafi was to maintain his Bedouin tradition in the City of Light and pitch his tent in the elegant garden of the official guest residence, but sleep indoors.

The visit signals a fresh start for the flamboyant leader long known as the champion of armed struggle and a sponsor of state terrorism.

President Nicolas Sarkozy – the first western leader to an extend an invitation to Qaddafi since his falling out with the West in the 1980s – looks to keep France in the running for hefty contracts in oil-rich Libya, widely seen as a new El Dorado.

However, Sarkozy also wants to send a signal to countries like Iran, in a standoff over its disputed nuclear program, that benefits await those who abide by international rules.

A deal for a civilian nuclear reactor for Libya is expected. It would be part of a pact of trust laid out last week in Algeria by Sarkozy, who has made bold symbolism his leadership style.

It is a risk, but we are keeping our eyes open, Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner wrote of the visit in Monday s edition of the daily La Croix.

Qaddafi last visited France in 1973. He took his first step toward ending years as an outcast in a meeting with European Union officials in Brussels in 2004, a year after announcing he was dismantling Libya s clandestine nuclear weapons program.

The Libyan leader s visit to France falls on International Human Rights Day, a dark irony for some.

Human Rights Minister Rama Yade expressed disgust with the scandalously strong symbolism of the chosen date.

It would be indecent, in any case, that this visit be summed up with the signing of contracts, she said in an interview published Monday in the daily Le Parisien. For France to avoid the kiss of death, it must ensure respect for human rights in Libya, she said.

Col. Qaddafi must understand that our country is not a doormat. Yade s boss, Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, defended the visit, calling it a way to return to normal relations Libya.

The trip will, I hope, allow us to highlight this country s return to the international community, Kouchner told France Inter radio.

Presidential spokesman David Martinon excluded tent diplomacy between Sarkozy and Qaddafi, saying talks would be held in the ornate Elysee Palace of the French presidency.

Extravagance was on the agenda with a 3 billion euros deal to buy a fleet of Airbus passenger jets and possible defense contracts, Qaddafi s son, Seif El-Islam Qaddafi, said in an interview Friday with the daily Le Figaro.

But most symbolic for Libya s new status is France s plan to sell a civilian nuclear reactor, expected to be used in part to desalinize water. Last week, France signed a nuclear cooperation accord with Algeria, Libya s neighbor in North Africa. There, he spelled out his view that sharing civilian nuclear technology with Muslim nations will be one of the foundations of a pact of trust the West must conclude with Muslim nations.

Qaddafi s official visit here is a payback with personal overtones. It was seeded by his summer decision to free six Bulgarian medics who had spent eight years in Libyan jails on grounds that they had contaminated more than 400 children with the AIDS virus – the final obstacle to normalizing ties with the pariah state.

The six were released after mediation by the EU and Cecilia Sarkozy, the wife of Sarkozy at the time, who negotiated with Qaddafi. Sarkozy then traveled to Libya. The Sarkozy couple has since divorced.

Libya set a course to return to the international fold _ and undo U.N. sanctions _ with its 2003 decision to dismantle its clandestine nuclear arms program. The same year it paid US$2.7 billion to families of the victims of the 1998 Pan Am bombing, then agreed to pay US$170 million in compensation to the families of the 170 victims of the 1989 bombing of a French UTA passenger jet.

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