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Libya Bars European Visitors In Bizarre Dispute

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GENEVA — Libya is barring and threatening to expel visitors from 25 European nations in a bizarre escalation of a dispute that began two years ago when Switzerland arrested leader Moammar Gadhafi's son on suspicion of beating his servants.

The new restrictions could affect everyone from oil executives to tourists from the more than two dozen nations, including Switzerland, that allow each others' citizens to visit without showing a passport. The unexpected move from Libya, which is trying to shed its reputation as an erratic dictatorship, has caused concern in European countries with heavy oil investments there.

Gadhafi's son, Hannibal, was held in a Swiss jail for two days after his arrest in July 2008 because he and his wife were accused of beating up their servants in a Geneva hotel. Geneva authorities dropped their criminal investigation after the two servants received compensation from an undisclosed source and withdrew their complaint.

Moammar Gadhafi forced Swiss Finance Minister and then-President Hans-Rudolf Merz to apologize in Libya last year and agree to possible compensation claims. Libya pulled most of its money out of Swiss vaults. And Libyan authorities continue to detain two Swiss citizens after 18 months on charges that Amnesty International and the United Nations have criticized as a form of political revenge.

In response, Switzerland suspended a deal aimed to improve bilateral relations, and initiated a visa blacklist that included Gadhafi and his family. That has drawn the rest of Europe into the dispute because a travel ban from one member of the continent's passport-free Schengen agreement is binding on all.

Libyan visas from Schengen countries are no longer being treated as valid, European governments said. Nine Italians were forced to fly home from Tripoli's airport after being denied entry and three Dutchmen blocked from taking off on a flight to Libya, they said.

European officials said the move was clearly retaliation for cooperation with the Swiss travel blacklist of Moammar and Hannibal Gadhafi, along with other relatives and Libyan government officials.

"It's a very big mess," said Jean Ziegler, a Swiss sociologist who frequently writes about Libya. "Gadhafi feels the family honor has to be avenged. So there is an irrational element to this."

Libyan government officials refused to comment, but European officials noted that some exceptions were already being made. While Slovakia said some Europeans have been kept at Tripoli's airport for longer than 24 hours, the Italian Foreign Ministry said 55 of its citizens have now been allowed to enter Libya.

The new restrictions apparently don't affect European diplomats or long-term residents of the country. Austria's oil and gas giant OMV, Danish engineering group FLSmidth and Norwegian oil company Statoil said operations in Libya weren't affected.

While it was unclear how long the visa ban would be in place, it may force European countries to pressure Libya and Switzerland to finally resolve its dispute with Libya.

The Schengen visa zone includes France, Germany and Italy as well as non-EU member Switzerland. The Swiss, already isolated by a series of tax spats, are receiving mixed support from their more powerful neighbors, some of whom have extensive interests in Libya's resources-rich economy.

"We don't have problems with Libya, Switzerland does," Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said on Swiss TV. "We are helping Switzerland but it can't take the rest of Europe hostage."

Italy's ENI SpA is one of several companies getting a slice of Libya's 43 billion barrels in crude, the biggest reserves in Africa. ENI has a deal securing its place in Libya until 2047.

"Gadhafi and some ministers have been put on a black Schengen list by Switzerland," said Frattini, who met Tuesday with his French counterpart Bernard Kouchner. "Switzerland thus has set Gadhafi and the ministers on an equal footing with criminals and terrorists."

Kouchner said: "This can't go on ... We shouldn't have to fight each time" our citizens want to go to Libya.

France, like Italy a major investor in Libya, strongly advised French citizens to avoid traveling or "even making an airport stop" in Libya. Germany, which is involved in a tense standoff with the Swiss over tax evasion, said it regretted that visas already issued in Libya were also no longer valid but placed no blame on either side.

The Libyan visa restrictions don't appear to affect British travelers and businessmen. Britain and Ireland are among the holdouts to Europe's passport cooperation.

Cecilia Malmstrom, the European Commission's home affairs chief, said European leaders would discuss the situation later this week and "consider the appropriate reaction," while Frattini said he would meet privately with Libyan officials in Rome on Wednesday.

The Swiss Foreign Ministry said it would continue to restrict Libyan visas, but spokesman Adrian Sollberger said the country still wanted to solve its differences with Libya diplomatically.

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AP writers Robert Wielaard in Brussels, Elaine Ganley in Paris, Colleen Barry in Milan, Toby Sterling in Amsterdam, Geir Moulson in Berlin, Veronika Oleksyn in Vienna, Ian MacDougall in Oslo and Jan Olsen in Copenhagen contributed to this report.