Saturday, October 16, 2004

Rommel's mines, Rabta plant and murder plot

by PV Vivekanand

LIBYA has been very much in the news this week. From a conventional point of view, the highlight was German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's groundbreaking visit to Tripoli in another move that seals the international rehabilation of Libya after decades of confrontation and sanctions that had isolated the North African Arab country. Schroder was the first German leader to visit Libya. British Prime Minister Tony Blair visited in April.
Little noticed this week was a report that the US is supporting Libya in converting a chemical-weapons plant into a factory making life-saving drugs to battle AIDS, malaria and other deadly diseases. That clearly sets another pillar in the emerging scenario of a US-Libyan alliance in a dramatic turnabout when compared with the bitter enmity of the two in the 80s and 90s.
Another was the closing in a US court of a file by the 23-year sentence handed down to an American Muslim in a case involving an alleged Libyan plot to assassinate the Saudi crown prince in the fallout from a verbal clash at an Arab summit.
In the meantime, Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi lived up to his reputation by demanding from Schroder German compensation for the millions of landmines left in Libyan desert during World War II.
Surely, Qadhafi would have been remembering that Libya had paid compensation to victims of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing in a deal with the US and UK and in the 1989 downing of a French airliner over Niger as well as to 168 non-American — mostly German — victims of the 1986 bombing of a West Berlin disco. Two Americans and a Turkish woman died in the disco bombing; compensation for the Americans is being held back on a different track with the US.
Given his record to raise controversies, it was only natural that Qadhafi would nudge up the issue of the more than 17 million landmines strewn all over Libya's western desert, particularly near the town of El Alamein, where in 1942 the British army under Bernard Montgomery decisively defeated Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps more than 60 years ago. Qadhafi complained that dozens of Libyans were still being injured and killed by the anti-tank and anti-personnel mines ( Indeed, not all the mines are German; they include British and Italian and Libya has not raised any demand for British and Italian compensation. That was one observation made by the German media after Schroder left Libya).
"Many of my countrymen die each year from these mines," Qadhafi was reported to have told Schroder. "Germany should pay towards their removal." He also showed Schröder maps of where the mines had been buried.
The Libyan demand, presented during a three-hour banquet Qadhafi hosted in honour of Schroder on Friday, should be seen against a call issued by the African Union conference in Addis Ababa last month for many European countries which fought in Africa in World War II to contribute part of their defence budgets to land-mine clearance.
And Schroder replied in the negative. "We look to normalisation between our two countries in the future — we don’t look to the past," he said in a brief statement reflecting his view that the mines issue is non-negotiable.
However, that does not negate the validity of the African Union call. Landmines are killing and maiming people dozens every day is not only in Africa but in almost every area of past conflicts, including Afghanistan, Cambodia and Vietnam.
It is an international issue and there is an international effort to address it. Libya is said to be in talks with British tycoon Branson to help pay for developing a breakthrough device to harmlessly defuse landmines.
It is unlikely that Qadhafi had expected Schroder to respond positively to his demand for compensation. It is a safe bet that the Libyan leader was only reminding Schroder that things works both ways; that the Libyans are entitled to seek compensation for German deeds since Tripoli honoured the German demand for compensation for the West Berlin blast in 1986. Never mind the issue is six decades old.
It was also typical of Libya to have sought to send another message by including in Schroder's itinerary a visit to a memorial to the victims of the US bombing of Tripoli in 1986. The US attack was in retaliation for the West Berlin blast.
Reports in Germany said Schroder's aides had a tough time shooting down the Libyan proposal and told Tripoli it was "totally unacceptable" for Schröder to make such a visit. But Libya made the point anyway since the $35 million compensation deal with Germany excludes American victims of the blast. Their demand for damages would be considered in tandem with Libya's demand for compensation for the Libyan victims of the American retaliatory missiles attacks against Tripoli and Benghazi in 1986.
Qadhafi's assertion that the West owes him thanks for Libya's role in fighting international terorrism was also politically oriented. Libya wants to go on the record in the international scene that "regardless of what other nations are doing," it is an active member of the US-led war against terorrism and is no longer a pariah. Germany and other western states owed him their gratitude "for his services to international peace," Qadhafi told Schroder, who in turn ackowledged it and welcomed the changed status of Libya.
However, Libya remains on Washington's list of countries supporting "terrorism."
In the din of the controversies raised during the Schroder visit, a report by the Washington Times did not seem to have received the media coverage it warranted.
The report said that under American recommendations, the Executive Council of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons had approved, in principle, "technical changes" to the global treaty on chemical arms that would make conversions of chemical-weapon plants for civilian purposes.
During the deliberations of the council that the US  announced it was "very supportive" of Libya's effort in this respect and urged the 41-member body to endorse the Libyan Rabta facility's conversion "to produce low-cost pharmaceuticals to treat HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, for use mainly in Africa."
 "The United States supports the proposal both because it makes sense in this particular instance -- we strongly support redirecting this equipment to pharmaceutical production for the benefit of the developing world -- and because it provides a means of dealing with similar situations if they arise in the future," the State Department said.
 "The process of conversion, and the facility once converted, will be subject to international verification to ensure that no materials are misused for chemical weapons purposes," it said.
Libya joined the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in February after it annouonced in December that it was abandoning its programmes for weapons of mass destruction in a secretly negotiated agreement with the US and UK.
The "technical changes" adopted by the council give Libya until 2010 to carry out the conversions.
Libya has already contracted an Italian firm to do the conversion at the Rabta plant,
Investigations triggered by Libya's disclosures about its effort to possess nuclear weapons are continuing. Prosecutors in Switzerland launched investigations last week against two Swiss citizens suspected of illegally exporting nuclear bomb-making technology to Libya.
One of the suspects is thought have been part of the clandestine international network of Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, which helped Libya's nuclear programme.
In yet another Libya-linked development, a prominent American Muslim activist who admitted participating in a Libyan plot to assassinate Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz was sentenced on Friday to the maximum 23 years in prison for illegal business dealings with Libya.
Abdurahman Alamoudi, 52, pleaded guilty in July to accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars from high-ranking Libyan officials while serving as a go-between for them and Saudi dissidents.
Alamoudi was not charged in connection with the alleged assassination plot, but the prosecution cited the plot as reason for him to receive the maximum sentence.
A naturalised US citizen from Eritrea who helped found the American Muslim Council and related American Muslim Foundation, Alamoudi pleaded guilty to violating sanctions against travel and trade with Libya, making false statements on his immigration application, and a tax violation. As part of a plea deal, he surrendered his US citizenship.
The prosecution submitted that Libya plotted to assassinate Crown Prince Abdullah after Qadhafi and the Saudi leader had a heated exchange of words during a March 2003 Arab League summit. Libyan officials were alleged to have invited Alamoudi to Tripoli and paid him several hundred thousand dollars, part of it for himself and the rest for Saudi dissidents who introduced to him associates who could carry out the plot, according to the prosecution.
The plot unravelled when British customs discovered $340,000 in cash in his possession at Heathrow airport. He was arrested in September 2003 when he returned to the US. Suspects were also detained in Saudi Arabia.
The alleged Libyan instigation of the conspiracy was played down by Washington in what was seen as a US resolve not to undermine Tripoli's changed status to a friend if not an ally and Qadhafi's move to reinstate his country into mainstream international politics.
Washington acknowledged that it had known of reports "that Libya was in contact with Saudi dissidents who have threatened violence against the Saudi royal family" before Qadhafi's pledge on Dec.19 abandoning his weapons programmes and renouncing terrorism.
"We raised those concerns directly with the Libyan leadership, and they assured us that they would not support the use of violence for settling political differences with any state," a US spokesman sad in July.