- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 10, 2004

The U.S. government has posted its first accredited diplomat to Libya since the two countries broke off diplomatic ties more than 20 years ago, the State Department confirmed yesterday.

The diplomat is stationed in the Belgian Embassy in Tripoli and is assisting U.S. expert teams monitoring promises by Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi to dismantle his nuclear- and other unconventional-weapons programs, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher revealed.

The posting is just the latest in a remarkable series of developments since U.S. and British officials won a pledge from Col. Gadhafi in December to abandon his weapons of mass destruction, allow international inspections and ease two decades of hostility with the West.

In London, British Foreign Minister Jack Straw and Libyan Foreign Minister Abdel-Rahman Shalqam held the highest level of contact between their two countries since the early 1980s. After the meeting, Mr. Straw said Libya was “making very good progress” and revealed that Prime Minister Tony Blair plans a trip to Tripoli in the near future.

“We are hoping very much that a visit can be arranged as soon as convenient,” said Mr. Straw, adding that no date has been set. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is the only Western leader to have visited Libya since the weapons breakthrough was announced Dec. 19.

Libya has been moving in recent years to end its isolation and escape international sanctions, many imposed after the bombing of a Pan Am jet over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. The United States has not had a direct diplomatic presence in Libya since 1981, two years after a mob burned the American Embassy building in Tripoli as part of a wave of anti-U.S. demonstrations across the Muslim world.

Britain formally broke relations with Libya in 1984, after shots fired from inside the Libyan Embassy in London killed a British policewoman during an anti-Gadhafi protest. Britain restored formal relations in 1999, but the ties have remained distant.

President Bush and other U.S. officials have cited Col. Gadhafi’s surprise decision to give up his nuclear-, chemical- and biological-weapons programs as one of the first spinoffs from the hard line pushed by Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair against weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Libyan officials have denied this, but serious negotiations about the weapons began just as the war to oust Saddam Hussein got under way in March.

Belgian diplomats have staffed a U.S.-interest section inside the Belgian Embassy in Tripoli. Mr. Boucher said yesterday that the U.S. diplomat posted to Libya will work with the weapons teams and that Belgian diplomats for now will continue to perform consular duties such as issuing visas.

U.S. officials have made a cursory inspection of the burned-out U.S. Embassy property in Tripoli, but Mr. Boucher said there has not been a thoroughgoing evaluation of whether the building can be used as an embassy again.

Mr. Shalqam told reporters in London yesterday that Libyan diplomats also plan to travel to Washington in the near future, but Mr. Boucher said the exchange of diplomats still is being worked out.

“We do expect now to have U.S. diplomats in Tripoli on a regular … basis as [the disarmament] work proceeds,” he said.

“And I expect that sooner or later — probably sooner — the Libyans will have diplomats in Washington.”

This article was based in part on wire service reports.

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