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Last Updated: Saturday, 27 March, 2004, 11:50 GMT
Under canvas with Colonel Gaddafi

By Andrew Marr
BBC political editor, Libya

British Prime Minster walks off his plane at Tripoli airport
British PM Tony Blair hopes to forge a new alliance in the war on terror

In so many ways it was a mad, mad week, madder even than some of the Blair whirlwind mystery tours that followed 11 September.

Belfast, Madrid, Lisbon, Tripoli, Brussels within what, three days.

"You look knackered", said Colonel Gaddafi when Tony Blair finally arrived in his tent, or Arabic words to that effect.

Hardly surprising. And emotionally, it must have been draining too. The grind of face-to-face negotiations with grimly irreconciled Northern Irish politicians, then the poignant grandeur of the state funeral for 190 victims of the Madrid bombs.

How must it have felt for Mr Blair to stand there, surrounded by so many other people who believe - wrongly or rightly - that they died partly because of a war he helped start?

He had the air of a man who realised just how much political damage Iraq had caused him

And then his own speech in a Portuguese garden when, perhaps affected by the Madrid funeral, he spoke eloquently about how he knew his critics felt we had penetrated too deeply into the Muslim world with this war.

His critics, he said, thought he had made a terrible mistake in the war against terrorism, and how that argument could not be resolved, not now and perhaps not ever.

Then he had the air of a man who realised just how much political damage Iraq had caused him.

If so, it was a rare reflective moment.

He was soon in the air again, flying through the dawn to Tripoli.

'Travelling circus'

British Prime Minister Tony Blair (left) with Colonel Gaddafi of Libya, outside the tent in Tripoli
Tony Blair is the first British leader to visit Colonel Gaddafi since he seized power in 1969

And so to the place. Let me explain about the place. That is its name, that and no other.

If Gaddafi moves, the place is no longer the place - it is then another place, a tent on a beach, or a hotel room.

For today however, the place consisted of four olive-green, quilted tents on a roadside between large green rolling fields.

Outside there were a few cars, a little collection of men standing around, some in khaki, some in business suits, some in jeans. There were some white plastic chairs, the kind you might have for a barbeque out the back.

It all looked a bit like a small, perhaps rather unsuccessful, travelling circus, beside some fields in Lincolnshire. Except, of course, for the camels.

And who was that peering round the corner of a tent-flap, waiting anxiously for his guest?

Unmistakeable, a few yards in front of me with the dark glasses, the little Arab hat and flowing robes.

And then Colonel Gaddafi disappeared again as a terrifying mob of unruly, aggressive-looking people - the British media - came down the road, pursuing Tony Blair as he went into the tent.

Hands flapping, looking worried, Libyan officials eventually restored order and waved us back a little.

Then the real climax of the visit happened - the handshake - cleanly and clearly recorded by the cameras to be sent round the world.

Tony Blair and Colonel Gaddafi
Britain has taken the lead in ending Libya's international isolation

We then did what real journalism so often consists of; we hung around.

Inside the tent, we could see Blair and Gaddafi in silhouette. What were they talking about?

An official came out and asked everyone please to move away a little bit.

Our speculations about them could be heard, every word, by them. We were putting them off.

This is, incidentally, a telling image of how much political journalism often works, peering in from the outside, not being able to hear but hoping to be noticed.

So we waited.

Last leg

The air was warm and scented with wild thyme and there were spring flowers all around us.

Libya's foreign minister was there, talking about how much he hated Osama bin Laden.

Apart from the coughing of camels and the muffled cursing of cameramen, it was all rather peaceful at the place.

Tony Blair in Libya
Tony Blair takes press questions

After the two leaders had walked from one tent to another for lunch, fish couscous, apparently, and fresh fruit , the rest of us returned to Tripoli.

Tripoli is that rare thing in the world today, a low-rise capital city, with barely any advertising.

There were clothes in the shops, and not all the women wore headscarves, and there were some pretty looking mosques.

But it had a faded, rather forlorn air; lots of concrete buildings begun and then apparently left uncompleted, as if there had been a radical loss of heart.

Artillery pieces and radar screens looked out to sea, badly disguised with brown sheets. Compared to any other Mediterranean city I can think of, the harbour was virtually empty.

So when Tony Blair returned to the British consulate to report on his meeting, and we were introduced to British businessmen here to sign deals it was clear that Gaddafi's turn to the West will be good news for ordinary Libyans.

He hates constantly being surrounded by journalists and lenses and questions

What about the rest of us? Had this visit made Tony Blair feel in any way queasy, I asked him.

"No", he said, but he paused for a very long time before he said it.

And generally when you travel in the prime minister's plane, he comes back to chat. Not this time.

I do not think he enjoyed what he had to do this week, but it is also clear how much he hates constantly being surrounded by journalists and lenses and questions.

Colonel Gaddafi's camels have their flies. He has us.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 27 March, 2004 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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