Women's rights next on agenda for Kadhafi in Italy

Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi was set to stress women's rights as he wraps up a controversial visit to former colonial master Italy, AFP reported.

Kadhafi, a self-described feminist, was to meet with 700 women from the business, political and cultural spheres on the final day of a visit in which he said Italy could never make amends for its colonial past and likened the United States to Al-Qaeda.

Equal Opportunities Minister Mara Carfagna noted that the flamboyant leader had "expressly asked" for the meeting with prominent Italian women, adding that it would provide a chance to review "the situation of women in Africa and in Libya in particular."

Kadhafi, whose decades-old regime admitted to sponsoring terrorism in the 1980s, Thursday recalled the 1986 US bombing of Libya that killed dozens of people including Kadhafi's adopted daughter.

"What's the difference between the US attack on our homes and the terrorist actions of Al-Qaeda?" he asked.

Kadhafi, 67, who arrived to a red-carpet welcome here on Wednesday, left Italian officials scrambling to confirm Rome's close ties with Washington.

"Just because we play host to Moamer Kadhafi doesn't mean we agree with everything he says," said a clearly embarrassed Foreign Minister Franco Frattini.

Daniele Capezzone, a spokesman for Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's People of Freedom party, added that whatever the Libyan leader may say against Washington, "nothing can call into question Italy's friendship, gratitude and admiration of the United States."

The maverick Libyan leader, who has gradually returned to the international fold since scrapping ambitions to build weapons of mass destruction in 2003, complained that Libya was never rewarded for the decision.

Libya earlier admitted responsibility for the 1988 attack on a Pan Am jetliner over Scotland that claimed 270 lives and paid out 1.8 billion dollars in compensation to the victims' families.

Kadhafi, in power since 1969, also slammed the United States for allowing Iraq to turn into a magnet for Al-Qaeda militants.

"Iraq is an open space for Al-Qaeda," he said, adding: "They couldn't have entered the Iraq of Saddam Hussein.... Through the fault of America, Iraq had become an Islamic extremist state."

Kadhafi's comments came as Berlusconi planned to travel to Washington for talks with President Barack Obama on Monday.

Later Thursday, the Libyan leader met with students at Rome's La Sapienza University where some scuffled with security forces.

A banner protesting Kadhafi's visit read "Merchant of Death."

On Wednesday, Kadhafi reopened colonial-era sores during a joint news conference with Berlusconi, saying: "Many crimes were committed during this era, with thousands deported."

Referring to a friendship accord reached last year under which Italy will pay five billion dollars (3.5 billion euros) in compensation to Libya over the next 25 years, Kadhafi said: "No compensation is possible for what colonial Italy did to the Libyan people."

Kadhafi also showed up on the red carpet of Rome's Ciampino airport sporting the picture of a hanged resistance hero pinned to his military uniform.

The picture showed Omar Al-Mokhtar at the time of his arrest in 1931 under Benito Mussolini's fascist regime.

Kadhafi's visit drew condemnation in Thursday's press.

"Amnesia over the history of the Libyan leader cannot be justified by reasons of state," wrote the business daily Il Sole 24 Ore, describing Kadhafi as "one of the worst despots currently in power."

Kadhafi praised Berlusconi for signing the friendship accord with Tripoli last August, citing his "bravery in taking this historic decision to apologise to the Libyan people" for Rome's 1911-47 military occupation and colonisation of Libya.

The treaty was "not a matter of accounts or dollars but of principles," Kadhafi said, adding: "Let's hope other colonial states will follow Italy's example."

Kadhafi, the Arab world's longest serving leader who has been in power since 1969, will also attend next month's Group of Eight summit in Italy as the rotating president of the African Union.

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