- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 16, 2001

From combined dispatches

TUNIS, Tunisia Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez met Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi in Tripoli, Libya, two days ago to discuss the oil-market situation and bilateral cooperation, Libyan state television reported.

The television showed footage of the two leaders talking through an interpreter under a tent Sunday at Col. Gadhafi's residence in Tripoli and then having lunch, Reuters reported from neighboring Tunisia. Mr. Chavez later left Tripoli, the television said, without providing any further details about his talks with the Libyan leader.

Mr. Chavez is trying to organize a high-level meeting of OPEC producers to discuss oil-price strategy, the Venezuelan president's office said.

The Venezuelan leader, on a three-week tour of Europe and Algeria, had not originally included Libya in his itinerary, but he announced unexpectedly in Algiers on Saturday that he was also planning to visit Libya, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

"President Chavez will raise with Col. Gadhafi the possibility of calling an extraordinary meeting of presidents and heads of state of OPEC to discuss the issue of crude-oil prices," a statement from Mr. Chavez's office in Caracas, Venezuela, said Sunday.

The outspoken, left-leaning president of Venezuela, the world's No 3. oil exporter and a leading member of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, recently announced his intention to wage an international "crusade" to try to prop up oil prices.

They have fallen sharply in recent weeks on fears of a global recession in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks against the United States in New York City and at the Pentagon. Venezuela's ambassador in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, said yesterday that Mr. Chavez would discuss the situation in oil markets with Saudi Arabia's King Fahd and Crown Prince Abdullah on Saturday.

Since he began his foreign tour a week ago, Mr. Chavez has made intense diplomatic efforts to try to arrange a meeting between OPEC nations and also non-OPEC producers to discuss strategies to stabilize crude-oil prices at around $25 a barrel. No meeting has been fixed so far.

A Persian Gulf oil source told Reuters last week that OPEC was discussing a possible cut in output of around 700,000 to one million barrels per day, although the timing of any potential reduction remained not clear.

Mr. Chavez's trip to Tripoli came as a surprise because he had been strongly criticized by political opponents for maintaining friendly links with countries like Libya, Iran and Iraq, blacklisted by the United States as "sponsors of terrorism."

Senior Venezuelan officials had originally denied that he would include Libya on his Oct. 6-26 foreign tour. Citing Venezuela's ambassador to Tripoli, Alejandro Padron, the statement released in Caracas Sunday said Mr. Chavez would spend just a few hours in Libya before traveling to Brussels to continue his European trip.

The Venezuelan leader, who had already visited Switzerland, France and Italy, was also originally scheduled to travel to Belgium, Austria, Portugal, Norway and Britain on his trip. But it was not clear what other last-minute changes might be made to his itinerary.

Mr. Chavez strongly condemned the Sept. 11 attacks, which killed more than 5,000 people. Citing fears of a wider international conflict, however, he has said he cannot give a "blank check" of support to retaliatory U.S. military strikes.

Libya's Col. Gadhafi, who has often assailed Washington for its policies in the Middle East and elsewhere, has said the United States has the right to respond militarily to the Sept. 11 attacks. He offered condolences to the United States and urged Libyans to send aid to the victims after the attacks.

Mr. Chavez's visit to Libya was not the only incident of his trip likely to draw criticism from political foes back home in Venezuela. A week ago in Paris, he declared that France must respect the rights of imprisoned terrorist "Carlos the Jackal," who was born in Venezuela.

According to the Associated Press, Mr. Chavez said Venezuela "has a commitment" to Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, which is the real name of "the Jackal."

Opponents criticized that remark as showing that Venezuela's official stance on terrorism is confused.

On the one hand, Venezuela "vehemently condemns terrorism and collaborates widely with countries fighting against it; and on the other hand, it is difficult to hide the personal sympathy that some feel for these individuals or their organizations," said ex-presidential candidate Francisco Arias.

Mr. Chavez also caused a stir in April 1999 when he sent a letter to Ramirez expressing his "human solidarity," saying "every human being deserves respect."

Ramirez is serving life in prison for the 1975 murders of two French secret agents and a purported informer. Arrested in 1994 in Sudan, he is also under investigation for three terrorist attacks in the 1980s.

Venezuela questions whether Ramirez's rights were violated when he was abducted in Sudan by French agents and whisked to France for trial.

"We have a commitment to this citizen, especially to guarantee that his human rights are respected," Mr. Chavez said in Paris. "We do this not only with Ilich Ramirez, but with any Venezuelan."

In an interview with the newspaper France Soir, Ramirez expressed "relief" at the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States. In 1998, he told France Soir that he wished good luck to bin Laden, who also had been indicted by a U.S. federal court in the bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa that killed 224 persons.

Ramirez has said he has killed 83 persons. He testified that he led a 1975 attack that killed three persons at the OPEC headquarters in Vienna, Austria. Among the 70 hostages seized in the attack was Valentin Hernandez Acosta, then Venezuela's oil minister. The hostages were freed in Algeria.

Vice Foreign Minister Arevalo Mendez Romero said Venezuela condemns terrorism, but is monitoring Ramirez's case according to international protocols. He noted that Ramirez's sentence is under appeal.

Tarek William Saab, a Chavez supporter and president of the Venezuelan Congress' Foreign Policy Committee, compared Ramirez's situation to that of U.S. citizen Lori Berenson, who was sentenced by a Peruvian court to 20 years in prison for collaborating with leftist rebels.

"This is a very important precedent. The United States fought for Lori Berenson's human rights and defended her right to a fair trial," Mr. Saab said. "The Venezuelan government is obliged and has the duty to see that every Venezuelan receives a fair trial abroad."

An editorial published by Venezuela's daily El Nacional on Friday said the Chavez administration "has not dared to face the terrorism issue head-on, because it would have to explain Venezuela's ambiguous position."

"A notable characteristic of Chavez and his government is falling into frequent mistakes by trying to simplify delicate situations like terrorism," said Caracas-based political analyst Fausto Maso. "This erratic conduct has turned him into an endless source of controversial comments, inviting everyone to participate in an eternal debate."


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