- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 5, 2007

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia — Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega set out today on a tour of Middle East countries, including Iran and Libya, aboard a presidential jet provided by Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

Col. Gadhafi loaned Mr. Ortega the luxury Boeing in order to “cut costs,” according to Mr. Ortega, who began the 10-day trip with a stop in Venezuela for talks with President Hugo Chavez. He will visit Cuba on his way home.

Mr. Chavez has encouraged his Latin American allies to strengthen ties with Middle Eastern governments such as that of Iran.

In Caracas, Mr. Ortega told a reporter he would not be worried by any U.S. objections to his visiting Iran.

“We are not asking permission from any country, from any president about who we meet, where we meet or what we talk about,” he said in response to a question.

He told Reuters news agency that the main purpose of his trip was to seek investment in Nicaragua. “We want to improve relations with Iran in all areas,” he said.

Mr. Ortega’s regional tour was arranged in April when his son, Manuel, visited Libya to hand Col. Gadhafi a message expressing the Nicaraguan president’s desire to “work toward the unity of the peoples of Latin America and Africa.”

Mr. Ortega also told Col. Gadhafi that he plans to emulate Libya’s system of “direct peoples’ democracy,” according to a March 20 dispatch by JANA, Libya’s official news agency, which reported a telephone conversation between the two leaders.

“President Ortega informed the leader about the formation of People’s Assemblies and People’s Committees at the municipal level in Nicaragua in order to start applying direct people’s democracy and to enable the Nicaraguan people to practice authority guided by the Jamahiriyah theory,” the dispatch said.

Iran’s foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, traveled last month to Venezuela and Nicaragua, where he announced plans for an “imminent” meeting between Mr. Ortega and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Mr. Ortega has enjoyed close relations with Iranian leaders and Col. Gadhafi since the 1980s, when Libya provided arms to his Sandinista government for its war against U.S.-backed Contra rebels.

Mr. Ortega’s government was unseated in free elections in 1988, and he remained in opposition until winning elections last year.

Col. Gadhafi reportedly helped Mr. Chavez to consolidate his authoritarian government, which last week took control of Venezuela’s main independent television channel, RCTV.

Maj. Juan Castillo, a former presidential pilot for Mr. Chavez, said that he flew 300 militants of Venezuela’s ruling party to train as “social activists” in Libya in 2001.

According to U.S. intelligence reports, Libya provided engineers, computer technicians and security specialists to help break an opposition-led strike that crippled Venezuela’s oil industry in 2002.

Bolivian President Evo Morales, another ally of Mr. Chavez, received a $500,000 prize from Col. Gadhafi in 2003.

Mr. Morales himself has used Mr. Chavez’s presidential aircraft during repeated trips abroad. Mr. Morales has also called for expanded trade with Iran.

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