Gadhafi In Italy Likens U.S. To Osama Bin Laden

07/12/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

ROME — Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi faced angry protests and tough questions on human rights Thursday as he gave a speech at a Rome university during his first visit to Italy.

Earlier Thursday, he courted controversy by calling for dialogue with terrorists and by likening the 1986 U.S. strikes on Libya to Osama bin Laden's terror attacks.

Hundreds of students protested Gadhafi's speech at La Sapienza University, saying the centuries-old atheneum and Italy had gone too far in giving the strongman a red-carpet welcome. Some hurled objects, firecrackers and red paint at riot police, and baton-wielding officers charged the demonstrators. No injuries were reported.

"It is absurd to invite to a university a head of state who is questioned for his human rights policies," political science student Cecilia Signorini said. "Sure, economic interests are behind it, which should be of no concern to a public university."

Gadhafi, for decades ostracized by the West, has emerged from his pariah status by abandoning weapons of mass destruction and renouncing terrorism in 2003. The United States restored diplomatic ties with Libya in 2006 and removed Libya from the State Department list of countries that sponsor terrorism.

Gadhafi's four-day visit to Italy, which began Wednesday, has highlighted Tripoli's strong political and economic ties to Rome. Last year, Italy agreed to pay $5 billion compensation to make amends for its 1911-1941 colonial rule over the North African nation.

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said the government invited Gadhafi _ who is currently head of the African Union _ because Italy wants the Group of Eight industrialized nations to put Africa high on the agenda of its summit next month in the central town of L'Aquila.

"Respecting Gadhafi is respecting Africa," Frattini told AP Television News.

Inside the Italian university's auditorium, Gadhafi gave a long speech on world affairs and reminded young people of Italy's colonial rule in Libya.

Students asked questions reflecting rights groups' concerns about a recent deal allowing Italy to send immigrants back to Libya if they are intercepted at sea. Some decried Libya's treatment of migrants as well as its poor human rights record.

"What happens to immigrants when they are returned to Libya?" one student asked.

"When will there be free elections in Libya?" said another.

Gadhafi sidestepped the questions, offering general remarks on the need to protect rights and refugees and a lecture on the meaning of democracy.

La Sapienza's rector defended the decision to host Gadhafi. "The university is always open to free debate," Luigi Frati told the ANSA news agency.

Earlier Thursday, Gadhafi gave a speech to Italian lawmakers urging the world to understand what motivates terrorists. The lawmakers gave the speech tepid applause, and some called it offensive.

Gadhafi, long accused of sponsoring terrorism himself, said that while he condemned terrorism, al-Qaida and bin Laden, he hoped to provoke others "to try and understand acts of terrorism."

He called for dialogue with terrorists, saying "One must talk to the devil if it brings about a solution."

He then continued sarcastically, "What's the difference between the U.S. airstrikes on our homes and bin Laden's actions?"

In April 1986, former President Ronald Reagan ordered airstrikes on Tripoli and Benghazi after an attack on a disco in Germany killed three people, including two U.S. servicemen. The Libyans said the retaliatory attacks killed 41 people, including Gadhafi's adopted daughter, and injured 226 others.

Libya has since agreed to pay compensation to the families of the Berlin disco victims as well as the families of the victims of the 1988 Pan Am 103 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270 people, including 189 Americans. Libyan Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi was convicted of blowing up the plane.

Gadhafi had been set to speak Thursday inside the Italian Senate, a rare honor for visiting dignitaries, but the speech was moved to a palazzo next door after opposition lawmakers objected. Some opposition senators remained outside the room holding a Lockerbie photo.


Associated Press Writer Marta Falconi contributed to this report in Rome.