Blair hails ‘transformed’ relations with Libya

SIRTE, Libya (AFP) — British Prime Minister Tony Blair hailed “completely transformed” relations with oil-rich Libya after talks with Muammar Qadhafi, the leader of a country now firmly back in the international fold.

Blair, kicking off a three-nation African tour less than a month before he leaves office, emerged from Qadhafi’s tent in the coastal town of Sirte to describe their discussions as “positive and constructive”. “The relationship between Britain and Libya has been completely transformed in these last few years,” he told reporters after the talks late on Tuesday.

“We now have very strong cooperation on counterterrorism and defence and a commercial relationship which, as you can see from this important investment deal, is one that is simply going from strength to strength.” Tripoli announced it will sign a $900 million exploration deal with British energy giant BP, which would mark the company’s return to Libya after a 33-year absence.

Blair said the deal was “an indication of the extent to which ties between the two countries have been transformed”. Libyan Prime Minister Baghdadi Mahmoudi also said the two nations signed deals for the acquisition of arms and anti-air missiles from Britain, military training for Libyans and arms manufacturing in the north African state.

He also said a memorandum of understanding on an extradition deal had been signed.

Blair’s office said the talks also focused on the Darfur conflict and the fate of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor facing execution in Libya after being found guilty of deliberately infecting children at a hospital with the HIV virus.

Blair last visited the north African country in March 2004, three months after Tripoli’s dramatic decision to renounce ambitions to acquire weapons of mass destruction.

“A few years back Britain and Libya could never have had this relationship. I could never have had this relationship with leader Qadhafi,” said Blair.

“Now all of that has changed and it’s a change to the benefit of Libya, to the benefit of Britain and the wider region.” London restored diplomatic ties with Tripoli in July 1999 after a 15-year freeze when Qadhafi agreed to send for trial two former intelligence officers accused of the Lockerbie plane bombing in December 1988.

One was cleared in 2001 by three Scottish judges at a special court in the Netherlands for bombing the Pan Am airliner over the Scottish town, killing all 259 people on board and 11 on the ground.

The other was jailed for life.

Blair said before leaving London that Libya has a vital role to play in fighting the spread of extremism, including Al Qaeda, and said Qadhafi had kept his pledges since returning to the international fold.

“Some of the information they have provided has been extremely valuable in combating terrorism.” Blair late Tuesday met three family members of children allegedly infected with the virus by the medics.

He assured them that Britain would continue to help in any way it could and added that progress on the issue would further improve Libya’s relations with international community, his office said.

Closer ties have been forged since 2004, not least because Britain sees Libya as a partner to help create better international security. Qadhafi has been trying to play the role of peace broker in Africa’s numerous conflicts.

On the war-ravaged Sudanese region of Darfur, Blair’s spokesman said Britain recognised the “useful role” Libya plays in the African Union.

Although Britain remains “seriously concerned” about human rights in Libya, it signed an agreement last year to deport security suspects on condition they do not face torture or ill-treatment.

Blair’s Africa tour will also take him to Sierra Leone and South Africa.

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