TRIPOLI (Reuters) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy met Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi on Wednesday in a push to deepen ties, clinching accords on defence and nuclear power a day after helping solve a dispute between Tripoli and the West.
Ministers of the two countries signed agreements on a military-industrial partnership, a nuclear energy project and cooperation in science research and education, officials said.
Sarkozy, who met Gaddafi in a tent in the compound of his Tripoli residence, has said he wants to help Libya return to the “concert of nations” after it freed six foreign medics convicted of infecting hundreds of Libyan children with HIV.
The medics -- five Bulgarians and a Palestinian -- left Libya on Tuesday on a French plane accompanied by Sarkozy’s wife and hours of energetic telephone diplomacy by her husband, clearing the way for his visit to Tripoli.
“I am happy to be in your country to talk about the future,” Sarkozy wrote in a book at Gaddafi’s residence. He is seeking to further French business interests in Libya and boost diplomatic ties before flying on to Senegal and Gabon.
Gaddafi, wearing sunglasses, a white suit topped by a beige shawl and a pendant in the shape of Africa, showed Sarkozy around the wreckage of a building he once used as his home in the sprawling compound in central Tripoli.
The building has been left unrepaired to mark an overnight attack by U.S. warplanes in 1986 in which an estimated 40 people were killed including Gaddafi’s adopted daughter Hanna.
Then President Ronald Reagan said the attack was in retaliation for what he called Libyan complicity in the bombing of a discotheque in Berlin a month earlier in which three people, including a U.S. serviceman, were killed.
Libya ended decades of international isolation in 2003 when it agreed to halt a weapons programme prohibited by the United Nations and pay compensation for the bombing of a U.S. airliner over Scotland in 1988 in which 270 people were killed.
The following year it signed a similar deal over the 1989 bombing of a French UTA plane over the West African country of Niger that killed 170 people.
France convicted six Libyans in absentia for the UTA attack.
French-Libyan relations, which had been warm in the 1970s, hit a low during the UTA dispute and French officials spoke of a new era after the compensation deal.
An aide to Sarkozy said officials had signed a memorandum of understanding for cooperation on a nuclear energy project.
“The objective is to cooperate so as to work on the installation in Libya of a nuclear reactor to supply drinking water from desalinated sea water,” Claude Gueant, the secretary general at the French presidential palace, told reporters.
Gueant said the accord was a strong signal. “This means that a country that respects international rules can get to a civilian nuclear industry,” he said.
In Washington, a Bush administration official said that at first glance the United States did not object to the accord.
“As long as it does not involve a dangerous part of the fuel cycle we don’t have a problem,” he added.
French oil firms had benefited from the absence of U.S. competitors in Libya. But U.S. oil firms, barred since 1986 due to economic sanctions, have now returned and Libya has held three oil licensing rounds to draw investment. Most of the permits were awarded to U.S., Japanese and Russian firms.
Sarkozy will be keen to maintain France’s influence in Libya as other Western powers beat a path to Tripoli and Washington gradually steps up its diplomatic presence in the country.
U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration nominated its first ambassador to Libya in 35 years when it became clear the medics’ case was on the way to being resolved.
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.