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Rice to visit Libya, first such U.S. trip in 55 years

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Top U.S. diplomat Condoleezza Rice will make a landmark trip to Libya this week, the first by a U.S. secretary of state in more than half a century, the State Department announced on Tuesday.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice addresses the media during a joint news conference with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (not pictured) in the West Bank city of Ramallah August 26, 2008. REUTERS/Fadi Arouri

Her trip is a tangible sign of warming U.S.-Libya relations, which first began to thaw when Tripoli gave up its weapons of mass destruction program in 2003.

“It is a historic stop,” said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack. “It certainly does mark a new chapter in U.S.-Libya relations.”

Rice, who is expected to meet Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi on her September 4-7 trip, also will visit Maghreb nations Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco and stop over in Lisbon, Portugal, before returning to Washington on Sunday.

U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was the last top U.S. diplomat to visit Tripoli and made the trip in May 1953, before Rice was born.

“If you think about this expanse of time and what has happened in that period of time -- we have had a man land on the moon, the Internet, the Berlin Wall fall and we have had 10 U.S. presidents,” McCormack said.

Rice could sign a trade and investment framework deal during her visit and U.S. officials said both sides were discussing a number of other agreements, including education, security, political and cultural, to try and expand ties.

But how quickly ties improve will depend on whether Libya implements a deal signed last month between the two countries to establish a humanitarian fund to resolve compensation cases involving victims of U.S. and Libyan bombings.

“The development of a relationship to the level we would like is inhibited until we get this agreement implemented,” Assistant Secretary of State David Welch, who led negotiations with Libya on the compensation cases, told Reuters.

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Welch said money had not yet been put in a humanitarian fund to pay out the victims, but he was optimistic it would happen soon and Rice would press Libya on this issue.

“I expect the Libyans to fulfill the agreement,” Welch told Reuters. “The motivation will be very strong for them to move forward,” he added.

U.S. victims covered include those who died in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270 people, and the 1986 attack on a Berlin disco that killed three people and wounded 229.

It also covers Libyans killed in 1986 when U.S. planes bombed Tripoli and Benghazi. Forty people died.

Anticipating an angry response from some U.S. families of victims of Libyan attacks, Welch and other senior officials briefed relatives before the official announcement.

Another sticking point with Libya has been on human rights concerns and Welch said Rice would raise these although he declined to provide details of any specific cases.

The United States has been pushing Libya to release ailing political dissident Fathi al-Jahmi, who is being held in a Tripoli hospital against his will.

“We would like to see him released. We have discussed this matter with the Libyan government and if necessary, we will continue to do so. We think the best way to approach that is quietly and consistently,” said Welch of Jahmi’s case.

McCormack said the decision to visit Libya was “tangible evidence” the United States did not harbor permanent enemies and served as an example to nations such as Iran, which has refused to give up its sensitive nuclear work that the West believes is aimed at building a nuclear bomb.

“Libya is an example that if countries make a different set of choices than they are making currently, they can have a different kind of relationship with the United States,” McCormack said.

Reporting by Sue Pleming; Editing by David Storey