Wednesday, February 16, 2005

PARIS — France is intensifying contacts with Libya, introducing military officers as part of a “strategic cooperation pact” between the two countries.

The move followed a visit to Libya early this month by French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie, who said the treaty signed in November will consist of “all aspects of cooperation.”

Under the pact, France will create a better air cover over Libyan territory with sales of aircraft and combat helicopters, and improve Libya’s arsenal, much of it bought from France about 30 years ago.

The Libyan hardware was “in a poor state,” French officials said, largely from neglect because of the effect of sanctions, lifted recently by European countries.

France also hopes for industrial contracts, pointing out that Libya “has sizable needs and sizable funds at its disposal.”

Libya, the owner of Africa’s largest proven oil reserves, recently emerged from international isolation. It has accumulated an estimated $20 billion in its coffers, largely because of soaring oil prices.

Although several French companies are active in Libya, Italy and Germany account for an estimated 32 percent of Western sales there. The French companies include the Vinci construction group, the telecommunications manufacturer Alcatel and the Alston engineering group.

Libya has granted 11 out of 15 recent oil exploration contracts to U.S. firms, but Washington still thinks Tripoli condones international terrorism. Despite overtures by Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, Washington has maintained its embargo on arms sales to Libya.

Other countries have no such scruples, and the French offer to Libya of its state-of-the-art Rafale fighter-bomber has encountered competition from Britain’s Eurofighter and Russia’s Sukhoi 27.

French officials, although upbeat about the fledgling partnership, have cautioned about Col. Gadhafi’s “capricious temperament.”

During Mrs. Alliot-Marie’s visit, the mercurial Libyan leader criticized French military presence in parts of Africa, saying, “The military approach is not the best way of solving the problems of the African continent.”

Nonetheless, this statement was followed by intensified discussions on the military aspects of French-Libyan cooperation.

France intends to repair some of the 148 Mirage fighter-bombers and patrol boats sold to Libya in the early 1970s. Libya subsequently sold most of the planes to Pakistan, but the remaining craft apparently “can be saved,” according to one French estimate.

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