Gaddafi terror comments fail to quell controversy
PARIS (Reuters) - Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi condemned terrorism at the request of President Nicolas Sarkozy, but his comments failed to quell widespread controversy on Thursday over his lengthy stay in France.
Gaddafi is in France for the first time in 34 years, pitching his Bedouin tent in the gardens of his Paris hotel and stretching out his sojourn over six days.
Opposition leaders and even some government officials have accused Sarkozy of turning a blind eye to human rights violations in Libya in his haste to wrap up business deals with the energy-rich north African state.
Looking to calm the furor, a French presidential source said Sarkozy had asked Gaddafi on Wednesday to condemn the twin car bombings in Algeria earlier this week that killed dozens.
Gaddafi duly obliged and denounced al Qaeda, which has claimed responsibility for the Algeria attack.
"What explains such an act. Can you say it is Islam? Islam would never think that. It is a criminal act that has no aim," he told France 24 in an interview late on Wednesday.
"We condemn terrorism, that is an issue that needs no debate," he said, adding that countries needed to hunt out the root of the problem. "It is an illness. We must know the causes to treat it and heal it."
His comments provided some relief to the presidential palace, which is still smarting from Gaddafi's denial earlier this week that Sarkozy had raised the issue of human rights during their first meeting on Monday.
But opposition politicians said the visit had showed France put business before morals.
"I have the impression that France has been humiliated," senior French Socialist Manuel Valls said on Thursday.
"When the president of the republic is called a liar by Colonel Gaddafi over whether or not the issue of human rights was raised, then you are dealing with an affront, a humiliation," he told RTL radio.
The French press also said Gaddafi's week-long stay was proving a public relations disaster for Sarkozy, who had promised to put human rights first when he took power in May.
"The Libyan leader's stay has become a nightmare for Nicolas Sarkozy," Le Parisien daily said on Thursday.
France was the first Western country to invite Gaddafi for an official visit since he renounced his nuclear weapons program and support for terrorism in 2003.
Looking to justify the trip, Sarkozy has said it generated 10 billion euros ($14.7 billion) of contracts for French firms.
Critics say many of the deals were reached months ago, and the Elysee admitted on Thursday that the United States could still veto the most eye-catching contract -- the sale of 14 high-tech Rafale fighter jets.
But Sarkozy's top aide defended the deals on Thursday.
"These commercial ties are good and real ... and let's not forget it, they represent 30,000 guaranteed jobs over the next five years," Elysee secretary general Claude Gueant told Europe 1 radio station.
In another moved aimed at silencing the critics, Sarkozy was due to meet on Thursday the relatives of those killed in the 1989 bombing of a French airliner over Africa -- an attack that was blamed on Tripoli and for which Libya paid compensation.
(Additional reporting by Gerard Bon and Francois Murphy) (Editing by Ibon Villelabeitia)
Thousands line up to say goodbye to Nelson Mandela, whose body is lying in state in Pretoria. Slideshow