TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was guest of honor at a military parade to kick off six days of festivities in Libya marking 40 years since Muammar Gaddafi took control of the desert country in a bloodless coup.
Chavez swept into Tripoli’s landmark Green Square to mix with dignitaries and joke with the press before greeting the veteran Libyan leader who arrived dressed in military uniform.
The two leaders known for their anti-U.S. rhetoric hugged then sat together, flanked by African heads of state including Tunisia’s Zine al Abidine Ben Ali and Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and dozens of army top brass.
Military bands from 17 nations including France, Italy and Australia filed past as Italian aerobatic jets zoomed over the Mediterranean in Gaddafi’s honor, trailing smoke in the red white and green of Italy’s national flag.
Armored vehicles and trucks laden with missiles trundled past in clouds of smoke in a parade lasting two hours. Tanks kicked up the warm tarmac under Green Square’s harsh floodlights, palm trees and banks of green Libyan flags.
Photos of Gaddafi were everywhere and banners draped above the square’s Italian colonial arcades read: “Libya the Green welcomes brothers and friends.”
The celebrations planned across Libya are designed to show the world that the long-isolated oil exporter is open again for business after years of heavy sanctions, organizers said.
Relations with the West reached a low point in the 1980s when demonstrators sacked the U.S. embassy in Tripoli and the United States, accusing Libya of organizing the bombing of a disco in Berlin, bombed Tripoli, killing more than 40 people including Gaddafi’s adopted daughter. Libya retaliated by striking English off its school curriculum.
Libya has cut support for armed revolutionary groups and made peace with Washington by scrapping a program to build nuclear weapons and paying compensation for bombings and other attacks for which it was blamed by the West.
Foreign companies are back searching for oil or vying for contracts to build roads, railways, phone networks and schools as Libya tries to make up for lost time.
Gaddafi was a 27-year-old army signals officer when he took power with a group of fellow officers while King Idris was abroad for medical treatment.
He insists his system of grass-roots rule by town hall committee, in which political parties are banned, will ultimately prevail across the world. Critics say the system smothers dissent and is a cloak for authoritarianism.
Controversy still stalks Gaddafi, with the United States and Britain angry at the “hero’s welcome” given a former Libyan agent freed by Scotland last month from a life sentence for the Lockerbie bombing that killed 270 people.
Libya invited dozens of Western heads of state but the leaders of France and Britain, whose governments have struck up warm ties with Gaddafi since sanctions ended, stayed away.
The United States said it sent an embassy representative to part of the festivities. Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi visited Libya on Sunday to mark the first anniversary of a friendship agreement.
Officials from Switzerland stayed away in solidarity with two Swiss nationals prevented from leaving Libya, Swiss authorities said. The two businessmen have been caught up in a diplomatic crisis since the brief arrest of Gaddafi’s son Hannibal in Geneva in July 2008.
Editing by Tim Pearce