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Saturday, 10 August, 2002, 12:01 GMT 13:01 UK
Gaddafi comes in from the cold
Colonel Gaddafi
Gaddafi's isolation may be coming to an end
Signs of a rapprochement between Libya and Britain grew this week when a British foreign office minister met Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi at home in his desert tent.

Diplomatic correspondent Bridget Kendall was on the historic trip.

It was like a sort of bizarre movie set. The sea was a deep Mediterranean blue, the white sandy shore throbbing in the afternoon heat haze.

Two large beach umbrellas cast a welcome black shadow to shelter under, as we waited, stripped of our mobile phones, computers and anything else that might conceivably explode.

Gaddafi reminded me of an ageing rock star ... a sort of Austin Powers of international politics

Don't forget the Lockerbie bomb was hidden inside a cassette tape-recorder, and last year's assassination of the Afghan commander, Ahmed Shah Masood, occurred when a camera exploded at a press conference.

Further down the beach a couple of large mobile homes were parked - the sort provided for Hollywood stars to refresh themselves in between movie takes.

UK Foreign Office Minister Mike O'Brien
British minister Mike O'Brien attended talks in Libya this week

And there, past the watchful guards in their red berets, was that famous Bedouin brown tent, Muammar Gaddafi's eccentric room-of-state under canvas.

Beyond the flaps - pinned back to let in a cooling breeze - you could just make out the Great Leader himself. Across from him sat the British Foreign Office Minister.

He was no doubt sweltering in his dark London suit and tie, but relieved at last to have penetrated the inner sanctum.

And surely it had been worth that frantic early morning flight from Tripoli, the six-hour wait in the boiling heat, and then a final dash across the desert when the call finally materialised.

Glimpse of a legend

Colonel Gaddafi
Gaddafi was a young officer when he seized power
In fact we hacks only got a brief glimpse of the legendary leader. He emerged, his face half hidden by the inevitable sunglasses and a floppy brown sun hat with turned up yellow brim.

He posed for a brief handshake. Then he strode off, head in the air, long scarf trailing - turning just before his final exit to flash a victory sign and clasp his hands high, a gesture of revolutionary triumph.

He didn't look 63. He's probably barely changed since 1969 when at the age of 27, he seized power from Libya's King Idris.

Ever since then he's been refashioning Libya into his own weird brand of socialist dictatorship. He reminded me of an ageing rock star, still playing the part of teenage rebel.

A sort of Austin Powers of international politics. You could almost hear him saying: "I'm a socialist revolutionary, baby."

Poster of Colonel Gaddafi
The 'Great Leader' is everywhere in Libya

The whole episode really did feel like some sort of 1960s parody. Actually there's quite a lot about Libya that feels as if it's in a time warp.

The political slogans everywhere, heralding Libya's leading role in Africa and proclaiming "Welcome to the Land of the Great Revolution" and "No Democracy without People's Congresses and Committees."

The copies of the Little Green Book on sale at the airport kiosk: Gaddafi's musings on how society should be structured.

And of course , plastered everywhere on street hoardings, the larger-than-life neo-realist portraits of the colonel, faithfully depicting the dark glasses, ample jowls and even the heavy five o clock shadow.

Changing times

But the world - and Libya with it - is changing. These days, apparently, Colonel Gaddafi's night-time hobby is surfing the internet.

And there's little doubt that as far as the British government is concerned, the era of treating Libya as a dangerous pariah is all but over.

PC Yvonne Fletcher
Libya paid compensation for the death of PC Yvonne Fletcher in 1984

It's amazing when you think of recent history: the Libyan embassy shoot out in 1984 that killed a British policewoman and for 15 years caused London to cut off relations.

The attack on US servicemen at a Berlin discotheque that led Ronald Reagan - with Mrs Thatcher's help - to bomb Libya in 1986.

The suspicions that Gaddafi was helping to arm the IRA; not to mention Libya's involvement in the Lockerbie bombing, still the subject of UN sanctions.

But perhaps truth is always stranger than fiction. Like the shifting political sands George Orwell describes in his novel 1984, in the last two decades international alliances have been turned upside down.

Twenty years ago, it was Saddam Hussein who was the ally, the West's best hope against Iran's fundamentalist mullahs.

Colonel Gaddafi was a mad dog dictator whom Western countries feared would stop at nothing.

The attack was one of the worst acts of terrorism
The Lockerbie bombing was one of the world's worst acts of terrorism
Who would have thought, two decades on, that the tables would have been turned; that a British government minister would stand on a Mediterranean beach and inform us Iraq should learn from Colonel Gaddafi.

"Libya is complying with international law," said Mike O'Brien.

"Iraq is not, and I hope Saddam Hussein will realise he should follow the lead of Colonel Gaddafi."

Who knows how the plot of this movie will unfold from here. But maybe for the Libyan Colonel, it will have a happy ending.

Lockerbie megapuff graphic


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06 Feb 01 | Middle East
06 May 02 | Americas
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