Rice visit marks new era in US-Libyan relations

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's historic visit to Libya this week sets the stage for a new era of relations between the two countries and casts aside decades of hostility and isolation. ( dpa )

US and Libyan relations began warming in 2003 when Libyan leader Moamer Gaddafi agreed to give up weapons of mass destruction programmes and denounce terrorism.

The United States subsequently ended sanctions, removed oil-rich Libya from its terrorist blacklist and re-established diplomatic relations. Rice will become the highest ranking US officials to visit Tripoli in more than 50 years.

"If you think about this expanse of time, we've had a man land on the moon, the internet, the Berlin Wall fall and we've had 10 US presidents, so this truly is a significant, historic visit," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.

"It just shows that countries do have a choice," McCormack said. " Libya made a choice to have a different, more constructive relationship with the United States, as well as with the international community."

The groundwork for Rice's visit was finalized last month, when Libya agreed to provide hundreds of millions of dollars into a fund to compensate the families of those who died in the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland.

Libyan intelligence was implicated in the bombing that killed 270 people, including 189 Americans. The United States and Libya signed the agreement August 14, and the United States expects the money will be transferred to the fund soon, McCormack said.

The deal ends any litigation against the Libyan government in US courts, and also includes the US families of victims of the 1986 bombing of a Berlin disco that killed two US soldiers, a Turkish woman and injured more than 200 people.

Then-president Ronald Reagan ordered retaliatory airstrikes against two Libyan cities, Tripoli and Benghazi, that killed dozens of people, including Gaddafi's adopted daughter during a raid on the leader's residence.

The US decision to restore ties and Rice's visit on Friday after a stop in Portugal has angered families of the Pan Am victims who still regard Gaddafi as a murderer who should not benefit from positive relations with Washington.

"I am irritated and angry that our government is really willing to open up diplomatic relations while Gaddafi is still in power since he is responsible for the murders of American citizens," Bert Ammerman, whose brother Tom was on board Flight 103, told ABC News.

McCormack said the agreement with Libya gives the families some closure but also emphasized the United States needed to look to the future and act in the best national interest of the country.

The compensation arrangement "by no means brings back those people that were lost, but it does provide some measure of closure for those family members and those friends of people who were lost in these acts of terror," McCormack said.

The Bush administration has also received criticism from human rights groups who believe the United States is overlooking rights abuses by the Libyan government for the sake of business and gaining support in the war on terrorism.

"Business concerns and counterterrorism cooperation are driving forces behind the US-Libya detente, but they should not come at the expense of human rights and the rule of law," said Sarah Leah Whitson, the director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division. "Scores of Libyans are still in prison ­ some of them disappeared ­ simply for expressing peaceful criticism of the government and its leaders."

McCormack said Rice intends to raise human rights concerns with Gaddafi during their meeting. After Libya, Rice will head to Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.

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