ROME (Reuters) - Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, on his first visit to Italy, brazenly wore a picture of a legendary resistance hero whom Italian occupiers hanged in 1931, but later hailed the former colonial ruler for apologizing for its past.
Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi personally welcomed Gaddafi on Wednesday on a trip Rome hopes will close a painful chapter in the two countries’ past, and the Libyan leader obliged by praising Italy’s efforts and a $5 billion reparations deal.
“Italy is the only former colonial state today, the only state, that we cannot reprimand any more,” he said at a news conference where he spoke at length about colonial-era crimes.
“It has cleaned up, purified, its imperialist past.”
The visit by Gaddafi, his first to Italy since taking power in a 1969 coup, is one of the few to the West since economic sanctions were lifted after Libya vowed to stop sponsoring terrorism.
Rome has pulled out all the stops for Gaddafi, whose North African country supplies a quarter of Italy’s oil and is a source of much-needed capital for Italian companies suffering from the global financial crisis.
But, to the chagrin of some of his Italian hosts, Gaddafi arrived with a picture pinned to his chest that was a stark reminder of Italy’s past as a repressive colonial power.
To the right of a battery of multi-colored insignia on his military jacket was a picture of Libyan resistance hero Omar al-Mukhtar in chains alongside his Italian captors.
“For us, that image is like the cross some of you wear,” he later told the news conference, likening it to the cross that Jesus Christ bore.
Just for good measure Gaddafi brought along al-Mukhtar’s son, now an elderly man who had to be helped off the plane by a bevy of security men.
“A long, painful chapter with Libya has been closed,” Berlusconi told reporters at the airport before Gaddafi went to a state lunch with Italian President Giorgio Napolitano.
Berlusconi said the two leaders had agreed that Libya would supply more oil to Italy, while Italian firms would be “in pole position” to win infrastructure contracts in Libya.
Symbolically, Italian television will screen on Thursday “Lion of the Desert,” a 1981 film on al-Mukhtar which has until now been banned in Italy.
Gaddafi has repeatedly lambasted Italy over its 1911-43 colonial rule, but the two nations have long maintained close business ties.
Tripoli has increasingly been flexing its financial and political muscle on the world stage since international sanctions were lifted in 2003. Earlier this year Libya signed a deal with Rome allowing Italy’s coastguard to deport boatloads of illegal immigrants back to its shore.
Gaddafi is set to address Italy’s business community, which is looking for signs that Libya will continue to funnel its petrodollars into Italian companies after high-profile purchases of stakes in UniCredit and Eni last year.
But while Italy’s political and business community are expected to fawn over Gaddafi and his entourage in the hope of sealing more business deals, he also faced protests.
Hundreds of people demonstrated in a Rome square to draw attention to what they said is Libya’s poor human rights record.
Protests are also planned when Gaddafi addresses students at Rome University on Thursday. After an outcry from some leftist lawmakers, he will not be allowed to make a speech in the main Senate hall but will address senators in a separate building.
A meeting with Italians expelled from Libya after Gaddafi took power is scheduled for Saturday, but the Jewish community who fled the country have refused to meet him on the Sabbath.
Several areas in Rome have been blocked off for the visit, including a lush park where a tent has been pitched for Gaddafi to receive guests.
Additional reporting by Silvia Aloisi, editing by Tim Pearce
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