Rice raises rights concerns as Libya hails ties

WASHINGTON Thu Jan 3, 2008 11:40pm EST

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice waves as she arrives in the courtyard of the Elysee Palace in Paris December 17, 2007. Rice will host Libya's foreign minister on Thursday -- the first visit by the top Tripoli diplomat since 1972 -- in a sign of warmer ties between the former foes. REUTERS/John Schults

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice waves as she arrives in the courtyard of the Elysee Palace in Paris December 17, 2007. Rice will host Libya's foreign minister on Thursday -- the first visit by the top Tripoli diplomat since 1972 -- in a sign of warmer ties between the former foes.

Credit: Reuters/John Schults

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Libya's foreign minister declared an end to confrontation with the United States on Thursday in a rare visit to Washington by a top Libyan diplomat aimed at cementing ties between the former foes.

Mohammed Abdel-Rahman Shalgam -- the first Libyan foreign minister to set foot in the U.S. State Department since 1972 -- held talks with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in a visit shadowed by concerns about human rights and unfinished legal issues stemming from the 1988 Lockerbie bombing.

"We don't speak anymore about war or confrontation or terrorism. No, the contrary: wealth of the people, cooperation, investments, peace and stability," he said after signing agreements on educational and technical exchanges.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Rice raised the settlement of past cases, human rights and geopolitical issues in one-hour talks with Shalgam.

"Secretary Rice urged Libya to move forward in resolving outstanding claims by families of terror victims against the Libyan government and raised human rights as an important agenda item for our bilateral relationship," he said.

U.S.-Libyan ties have warmed since Libya abandoned support for terrorism and gave up weapons of mass destruction in 2003 in a move that Washington has urged North Korea and other states with nuclear weapons ambitions to follow.

But relations have been held back by the absence of any final settlements resolving the 1988 Pan Am flight 103 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, as well as the 1986 bombing of a German disco. Americans were killed in both attacks.

Libya was implicated in the incidents and it had agreed to pay the families of Lockerbie victims $10 million per victim, but has not made the final payment. It also has not paid compensation for U.S. victims of the La Belle disco bombing in the former West Berlin.

GEOPOLITICS VS POLITICAL PRISONERS

Sen. Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, criticized the Bush administration for "wining and dining the Libyan foreign minister" before the Lockerbie case was fully settled.

"Those family members still have not gotten closure on that tragic episode, and a big part of the problem is the Libyan government's continued unwillingness to take responsibility," he said in a statement before Rice met with the Libyan.

Kara Weipz, who lost a brother at Lockerbie and is president of a group for the victims' families, voiced frustration that Rice had met Shalgam. She noted that Rice was the only U.S. secretary of state since 1988 who has not met with bereaved families.

"If we are going to have these bilateral relations, this is a cornerstone," she said by telephone from New Jersey.

Human rights groups had urged Rice to raise the case of political prisoners, torture and other documented abuses in Libya.

"We welcome improved relations between Libya and the U.S., but not at the expense of political prisoners, torture victims, and other Libyans who suffer abuse," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa director.

McCormack said Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch raised the case of political prisoner Fathi al-Jahmi in a separate meeting with Shalgam.

The democracy activist has been detained since March 2004, when he criticized Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in interviews with the international media.

Rice restated on Thursday her intent to visit Libya "at the appropriate time," McCormack said.

Physicians for Human Rights said Rice should not visit Tripoli until it addresses rights problems. The group's deputy director, Susannah Sirkin, said it was unwise to open technical cooperation with Libya until it stops "the gross abuse and misuse of science" displayed in the Bulgarian nurse case.

In July, Libya ended a diplomatic standoff by freeing five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor held since 1999 on charges, which Western countries ridiculed, that they infected Libyan children with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Rice told Shalgam bilateral ties had "changed significantly for the better since 2003 because of good faith actions by both sides," McCormack said.

Washington wants to work with Libya, a member of the U.N. Security Council for 2008-09, on issues such as Kosovo, Iran, and Sudan, she told Shalgam.

(Editing by Xavier Briand)

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