Rice to host Libya as former foes mend ties

( Reuters ) - Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will host Libya's foreign minister on Thursday -- the first visit by the top Tripoli diplomat since 1972 -- in a sign of warmer ties between the former foes.

Rice will meet with Foreign Minister Mohammed Abdel-Rahman Shalgam days after Libya took over the rotating presidency of the U.N. Security Council, another milestone in the North African country's shedding of its pariah status in the West.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Rice would discuss Washington's 2008 goals on the council and bilateral issues, including human rights and unresolved cases from the 1980s bombings in which Libya was implicated.

Ties between the two countries, which re-opened full embassies in each other's capitals in 2006 after a 25-year break, were "changing in a positive way," but there was still much to be done, McCormack told reporters.

"There's still a lot to be done with respect to instituting basic freedoms within Libya. There's still some outstanding issues with respect to claims by U.S. citizens," McCormack said.

U.S.-Libyan ties have warmed since Libya abandoned support for terrorism and gave up weapons of mass destruction in 2003 in a disarmament example Washington has urged North Korea and other states with nuclear weapons ambitions to follow.

But relations have been held back by the absence of any final settlements resolving the 1988 Pan Am 103 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, as well as the 1986 bombing of a German disco. Americans were killed in both attacks.

Libya was implicated in both incidents and it had agreed to pay the families of Lockerbie victims $10 million per victim, but has not made the final payment. It has also not paid compensation for U.S. victims of the La Belle disco bombing in West Berlin.

Human rights activists and relatives of jailed Libyan dissidents have pressed the United States to live up to its stated aim of promoting democracy in the Middle East.

"I would expect that the secretary is going to talk about the importance of basic principles of human rights and democracy in Libya, including freeing political dissidents," McCormack said.

Analysts said Thursday's talks could build on Rice's and her predecessor Colin Powell's previous meetings with Shalgam at the United Nations that featured candid discussions.

"We, at least now, have a much more normalized relationship with Libya in the sense that, like with any country where we have differences, we are trying to settle them through regular diplomatic dialogue," said David Mack, vice president of the Middle East Institute and a retired U.S. diplomat.

Lisa Anderson, a Middle East politics expert at Columbia University, said "the Libyans are feeling a little impatient" at the slow pace of full diplomatic normalization, and Tripoli probably wants a U.S. invitation for leader Muammar Gaddafi -- an unlikely prospect.

"We can't seem to get an ambassador there and we're dragging our feet, from their perspective, and they would like something more serious and high profile," Anderson said.

Rice told reporters last month she hope to visit Libya, but provided no date for a trip that would make her the highest-level U.S. visitor to the country in more than 50 years.for peace, from the comfort of their hotels and walled homes in Nairobi, where they are conveyed in bullet-proof limousines."

International efforts to mediate have been stepped up.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was phoning Kibaki and Odinga to urge both to "do everything they possibly can in the name of political reconciliation" to end the violence, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in Washington.

Nobel peace laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu was due to meet the head of Kenya's electoral commission on Thursday. Ghanaian President John Kufuor was waiting to talk to Kibaki before deciding whether to visit Nairobi himself or send a team.

The Kenyan government and religious figures urged local leaders to preach unity to ethnically polarized communities.

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