Gadhafi Celebrates 40 Years of Revolution: Lockerbie Missteps Overshadow Libya's Festivities

Moammar Gadhafi put on a massive show to celebrate the 40th anniversary of his coup on Tuesday, but Western leaders were conspicuous by their absence. Although Libya has shaken off its pariah status, the furor over the hero's welcome it gave the Lockerbie bomber shows that there is still some way to go before it is embraced into the international fold.

Fighter jets, a military parade, circus acts, a light and sound display and dance troupes were all elements in an extravagant night of celebrations to mark 40 years of "revolution" in Libya. Yet the absence of major western heads of state in Tripoli on Tuesday indicates that while the oil-rich North African country is no longer a pariah, controversies such as the hero's welcome for the convicted Lockerbie bomber still stalk its eccentric leader Moammar Gadhafi.

With Tripoli hosting an African Union summit on the eve of the festivities, many African leaders were in attendance, and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez also made the trip to Libya. Gadhafi, dressed in an ostentatious military uniform, greeted his guests at the event that marked four decades since his bloodless coup overthrew the monarchy and established an autocratic system that is a blend of socialism and Islam.

Photo Gallery

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Photo Gallery: Gadhafi' s Anniversary Celebrations Sweep Tripoli
The only EU state represented by a head of government was the tiny Malta, with most others opting to send diplomats or senior officials instead. Former colonial ruler Italy has improved ties with Libya in recent years and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi compromised by turning up in Tripoli at the weekend to mark the first anniversary of a friendship treaty with Libya, which overthrew Italian rule in 1943.

While Libya has made great progress in returning to the international fold in recent years, recent missteps have shown that it is still far from a reliable partner. Tripoi appalled many in the United States and Britain with the triumphant welcome it extended to Abdel Baset al-Meghari, the only man convicted of the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 which exploded over the Scottish town of Lockerbie, killing 270 people, most of them Americans. Scottish officials released him on Aug. 20 on compassionate grounds due to his terminal prostate cancer. However, his release and warm welcome on the steps of the aircraft by Gadhafi's son Seif al-Islam outraged many of the victims' families.

'Beneficial Relationship'

The decision by Libya to include a clip of that homecoming in a video presentation on Tuesday that chronicled Gadhafi's accomplishments since the 1969 coup is likely to stoke that anger. Intense public pressure has forced the British and Scottish governments to defend al-Meghari's release. On Tuesday the correspondence between London and the Scottish government in Edinburgh relating to the issue was released. It showed that the British Justice Minister Jack Straw had decided against excluding al-Meghari from a prisoner transfer agreement between the UK and Libya because he did not want to damage the "beneficial relationship" between the two countries. "Developing a strong relationship with Libya, and helping it to reintegrate into the international community, is good for the UK," Straw wrote to the Scottish Premier Alex Salmond, pointing to the fact that Libya was now an important partner in the fight against terrorism.

In the decades following his rise to power Gadhafi was accused of funding rebellions and harboring terrorists as well as sponsoring attacks himself. The 1986 bombing of a disco in Berlin frequented by American troops prompted US air strikes on Libya that are thought to have killed 41 people including Gadhafi's adopted daughter.

More recently, Libya has attempted to restore its standing in the world. Organizers of Tuesday's show said it was supposed to show that Libya is open for business after years of heavy sanctions. The country has in recent years made significant steps to emerge from isolation, such as scrapping its program to build nuclear weapons and paying compensation for terrorist bombings. While the country has become a major supplier of oil and natural gas, foreign companies are now also scrabbling to pick up contracts on everything from road building to railways to phone networks.

Swiss 'Hostages' in Libya

One country that is being left out of the loop is Switzerland. Relations between the two countries have been dire ever since the brief arrest of Gadhafi's youngest son Hannibal in Geneva in July 2008. Gadhafi junior and his wife were detained in a luxury hotel after allegedly beating up the servants they had brought with them, although the servants withdrew their complaints after receiving compensation. Tripoli responded by recalling diplomats, suspending visas for Swiss citizens, withdrawing funds from Swiss banks and reducing flights. Tripoli also cut off supplies of crude oil to a Libyan-owned refinery in Switzerland.

Relations are far from repaired, particularly in light of the plight of two Swiss businessmen, Max Goeldi and Rachid Hamdani, who were detained in Libya in July 2008 and have since been prevented from leaving the country. The repercussions of those arrests now threaten to turn into a major political incident in Switzerland, after the Swiss president Hans-Rudolf Merz bungled negotiations for their release. A Swiss government jet recently flew to Libya and returned empty-handed despite Merz himself having travelled to Tripoli to apologize for Hannibal Gadhafi's arrest, something that has enraged many in Switzerland. The fact that this has so far failed to secure the liberation of the two men, dubbed "hostages" in the Swiss press, has led to calls for Merz's resignation.

Meanwhile, Gadhafi who likes to set up his headquarters in an ornate Bedouin tent whenever he travels abroad, is soon heading to his next big show. He is scheduled to make a speech at the United Nations in New York in late September. But he was refused permission to pitch his tents in Central Park. Alternative plans to set up camp at the Libyan diplomatic residency in suburban New Jersey met with an uproar by local residents and were reportedly cancelled last Friday. The Libyan leader now apparently plans to restrict his stay to Manhattan.

smd -- with wire reports

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