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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. State Department apologized on Tuesday for dismissive comments its spokesman made about Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's call for "jihad," often translated as "armed struggle," against Switzerland.
"I understand that my personal comments were perceived as a personal attack," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters. "These comments do not reflect U.S. policy and were not intended to offend. I apologize if they were taken that way."
In apologizing, he appeared to be trying to end a dispute that prompted the head of Libya's state oil company to summon executives from U.S. energy companies Exxon Mobil, ConocoPhillips, Occidental, Hess and Marathon last week and warn them the dispute could hurt U.S. businesses in Libya.
The dispute showed the sensitivity of Tripoli's ties with the West more than six years after its decision to abandon weapons of mass destruction led to a rapprochement with Washington, including the restoration of diplomatic relations.
The fracas centered on a February 25 speech Gaddafi made calling for a "jihad" against Switzerland. The term is often translated as "armed struggle," but a Libyan official has since said Gaddafi meant an economic boycott.
Asked about the speech, Crowley on February 26 said it reminded him of a previous Gaddafi address which, he said, involved "lots of words and lots of papers flying all over the place, not necessarily a lot of sense."
Libya's ambassador to the United States last week told Reuters that his country wanted good relations with Washington but would not allow its leader to be insulted.
Crowley said he was sorry the dispute had become an irritant in the relationship and said that U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman, the top U.S. diplomat for the Middle East, will visit Libya next week for consultations.
Crowley also said that he, along with Feltman, had called on Libya's ambassador to the United States on Friday and had made clear that he had not intended to cause offense.
"I should have focused solely on our concern about the term 'jihad,' which has since been clarified by the Libyan government," he said. "I regret that my comments have become an obstacle to further progress in our bilateral relationship."
Libya has been locked in a dispute with Switzerland since July 2008 when Gaddafi's son Hannibal was briefly arrested by police in Geneva on charges -- which were later dropped -- of mistreating two domestic employees.
Gaddafi's son was released shortly after his arrest, but Libya cut oil supplies to Switzerland, withdrew billions of dollars from Swiss bank accounts and arrested two Swiss businessmen working in the North African country.
One businessman has been released but the other was forced to leave the Swiss embassy in Tripoli and go to prison to serve a four-month sentence, apparently avoiding a major confrontation.
Libya insists the Geneva arrest and the case of the two businessmen are not linked.
"Regarding the dispute between Libya and (Switzerland), the United States does not take a position other than to register our concern about two Swiss citizens, one of whom has been released on humanitarian grounds, and we hope that this issue can be resolved as soon as possible," Crowley said.
Additional reporting by Andrew Quinn; Editing by Cynthia Osterman