Berlusconi's Gaddafi About-Face: Italian Prime Minister Shifts Libya Stance

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MILAN -- Almost exactly a year ago, Silvio Berlusconi was throwing a party for his "friend" Moammar Gadhafi replete with Bedouin riders and a lavish dinner. On Thursday, he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the head of the Libyan rebel Cabinet, offering his best wishes and announcing the release of frozen assets.


Other leaders have had turnarounds on Libya, but the Italian premier is unique among his European peers in having such a cozy relationship with Gadhafi - and performing such a remarkable about-face.

The two have dined together and exchanged gifts. In one notorious incident last year, Berlusconi kissed Gadhafi's hand at a summit. And when the world rushed condemn the Libyan's bloody crackdown on protests in February, Berlusconi held back - saying Gadhafi was too busy to be bothered.

It makes the sight of Berlusconi opening his arms to Mahmoud Jibril at a government office in Milan all more surreal. Berlusconi declared Thursday that Italy plans to release euro350 million ($505 million) in frozen Libyan assets and expressed his hope for a successful transition to democracy.

"We have expressed to Prime Minister Jibril the best wishes of the Italian people for the very tough work that awaits him and his collaborators to transform Libya into a real democracy," Berlusconi said.

At the end of the joint press conference, Berlusconi shook Jibril's hand firmly, looking him straight in the eye, and guided him outside.

Opposition politicians marveled at the turnaround.

"After having kissed a hand dripping with blood, now he should kiss the hand representing those whose blood was shed," lawmaker Italo Bocchino said.

The two countries share a long and complicated history.

Italy was Libya's colonial ruler in fascist times and went on to develop into Libya's largest trading partner as old resentments matured into mutually beneficial economic ties - worth euro11 billion before trade was halted in February with the outbreak of civil war.

Italy's islands are just a few hundred kilometers (miles) from Libya's shores. Rome has relied on Gadhafi to keep away waves of boat people escaping conflict or poverty, and is dependent on the Arab country's oil.

Business ties were often greased at such extravaganzas such as Berlusconi's soiree last Aug. 30

Among the hundreds of guests at the grounds of a paramilitary barracks in Rome were captains of Italian banking and industry, including the then-CEO of Unicredit, Italy's largest bank, which in August this year won the first international license to operate in Libya.

To make his honored guest feel at home, Berlusconi laid on some thrilling entertainment: Bedouin riders on 30 Libyan thoroughbreds flown in from the North African country thundered across the field in an evening that stretched into the early hours.

Amid such hospitality, Gadhafi has sometimes been an inrascible guest.

In 2009, the colonel, who early in his regime kicked Italian residents out of Libya, virtually thumbed his nose at the Berlusconi government when he stepped off a plane in Rome wearing a photo pinned to his uniform of a Libyan national hero killed by Italian colonial authorities.

None of that got into the way of the blossoming relationship between Berlusconi and Gadhafi. But after initial hesitation, Berlusconi - under pressure from allies - was drawn into the Libya conflict and reversed his earlier refusal to take part in NATO bombing raids.

Berlusconi was clearly uncomfortable with the move. During a wide-ranging conversations with foreign journalists in April, he conceded that Italy's involvement with the NATO operations was difficult for him.

"I accepted despite the personal difficulties that this decision entailed for me," Berlusconi said. "At one point I even thought it was my duty to resign," he said, adding that "everybody asked me not to."

Berlusconi was certainly not alone in seeing the benefits of rapprochement with the oil-rich nation after Gadhafi overcame his pariah status by giving up the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and renouncing support for terrorism.

Others included former British prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. France's Nicolas Sarkozy, one of the first to take military action this spring, gave Gadhafi a royal welcome in Paris in December 2007, the first such visit since Gadhafi's falling out with the West in the 1980s.

Gadhafi stayed at the official guest residence near the presidential Elysee Palace, pitching a Bedouin tent in the elegant gardens. His visit clinched contracts worth billions of dollars for French business. Government officials defended the warm welcome for Gadhafi as a way to encourage states that show signs of moving away from terrorism.

While Sarkozy welcomed him into the Elysee Palace, dozens of lawmakers boycotted a session at the National Assembly parliament building.

This year, Sarkozy fiercely and swiftly turned against Gadhafi. France was the first country to recognize the opposition government and the first to fire airstrikes against Gadhafi's forces.

Berlusconi makes personal contacts a hallmark of his diplomacy, including hosting Russian leader Vladimir Putin at his villa on Sardinia's posh coast. During Gadhafi's sojourn in Rome last summer, some 200 aspiring models were recruited for a soiree in which the Libyan lectured them on Islam and distribute copies of the Quran.

Italy's Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said Tuesday that he expects the rebels to honor all business contracts with Italian firms.

"They have committed to honor all of the contracts, also those of Italian businesses, that were signed by Libya. They weren't contracts with Gadhafi," Frattini told RAI state radio.


D'Emilio reported from Rome. Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.

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Video below (via Al Jazeera):

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CNN reports:

Muneer Masoud Own, 33, who made a living doing manual labor, said forces loyal to longtime Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi slaughtered nearly 150 prisoners as rebels closed in on Tripoli last week.

Charred bodies littered the ground around a warehouse -- roughly 30 feet by 45 feet -- where the detainees were kept. A volunteer who helped remove them, Bashir Own, estimated that he had seen about 150 bodies. He is not related to Muneer Own, who said he barely escaped an ordeal that started about a month ago.

Full story here.

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Dozens of Libyans perform the last late afternoon prayer of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan at Freedom Square in the eastern Libyan port city of Benghazi on August 29, 2011.

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Libya rebels claim to have "almost certain information" that Gaddafi's intelligence chief was killed.

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Al Jazeera's James Bays filed a dazzling report from Libya on the situation of African migrants in the embattled country. Migrants claim to be assaulted and are locked up in prisons until rebel fighters made sure they did not work as mercenaries for the Gaddafi regime.

Watch Bays' report here:

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The rebel commander in Tripoli Al Mahdi Al Haraqi told Reuters that he had confirmation that Khamis Gaddafi has been killed in a clash near Ben Walid.

Reuters writes:

He was taken to a hospital but died of his wounds and was buried in the area, Al-Haragi said, without giving the timing. No independent confirmation of the death was available.

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters the United States could not yet independently confirm Khamis' death but said similar information was being received in Washington from "reliable sources."

Rebels claimed twice before Khamis Gaddafi was killed.

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Libya's National Transitional Council reacted strongly on the message that relatives of Gaddafi would have arrived in Algeria, Reuters reports.

A spokesperson for the NTC said it considers sheltering members of Gaddafi's family an act of aggression.

"We have promised to provide a just trial to all those criminals and therefore we consider this an act of aggression," spokesman Mahmoud Shamman told Reuters.

"We are warning anybody not to shelter Gaddafi and his sons. We are going after them in any place to find them and arrest them," he said.

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A rebel commander in Tripoli claims Gaddafi's son Khamis has been killed in clashes in southern Libya.

Khamis was claimed killed twice before.

@ Reuters : FLASH: Gaddafi's son Khamis killed in clashes in southern Libya -Rebel commander in Tripoli

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AFP reports Italian energy company ENI reached an agreement with the Libyan National Transitional Council to take up gas supplies to Italy.

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Libyan rebels they seek the extradition of Gaddafi's family members who fled to Algeria.

@ Reuters : FLASH: Libya rebels say will seek extradition of Gaddafi family from Algeria

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Rebel commanders say Khamis Gaddafi, one of Colonel Gaddafi's most feared sons, has been killed in an air strike south of Tripoli.

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Algeria confirms two of Gaddafi's sons, his daughter Aicha and his wife are in the country.

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Reuters reports Khamis Gaddafi, the Colonel's infamous ... son, may be next to be places on the ICC's most wanted list. The International Criminal Court earlier approved warrants for Gaddafi and his son Saif al-Islam.

ICC prosecutor Luis-Moreno Ocampo told Reuters in an interview that "Khamis should also be prosecuted because Khamis was the commander of the brigade that was more active on some of the crimes."

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Official reportedly confirm three of Gaddafi's sons, his daughter and wife have arrived in Algeria.

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From the Associated Press:

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — The chairman of the African Union says Libyan rebels may be indiscriminately killing black people in Libya because they have confused innocent migrant workers with mercenaries.

Chairman Jean Ping told reporters Monday that this is one of the reasons the AU is refusing to recognize the National Transitional Council as the country's interim government.

He said "We need clarification because the NTC seems to confuse black people with mercenaries .... They are killing normal workers."

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He said there was no doubt the council now controlled the capital city and called on both sides to "stop the killing."

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Libyan rebels captured Gaddafi's personal 'Afriqiyah Airbus' in Tripoli.

Libyan rebels leave Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi's 'Afriqiyah One' Airbus A340 plane at Tripoli airport on August 29, 2011.

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The tribe of Abdel Fattah Younes said it will take justice into their own hands if rebel leaders do not identify the commander's killers, Reuters reports. "After Eid, that is the final deadline," Tarek, one of Younes' sons said in an interview with Reuters.

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Al Jazeera reporters in Tripoli said rebels have surrounded Gaddafi's hometown Sirte. The main push in the battle for Sirte is expected to come from the east, the channel reports.

Al Jazeera's Hoda Abdel Hamid reported from the eastern front near Sirte that rebels are holding off attacks, as they want to give tribal leaders in the city time to negotiations.

Andrew Simons, on the western front near the city, reported small fights between rebels and Gaddafi loyalists.

On Monday, NATO intensified airstrikes on Sirte.

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The rebel flag waving over the Libyan embassy in Moscow.

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Read more on Al Jazeera.

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France reopened its embassy in Libya, a spokesperson for the French foreign ministry said. France had closed the embassy six months ago.

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Libyan rebels asked NATO to keep up pressure on the Gaddafi regime. The Associated Press reports NTC head Mustafa Abdul Jalil told a NATO delegation that former regime supporters who are now in hiding could still cause trouble.

"Gaddafi is still capable is doing something awful in the last moments," Abdul-Jalil said.

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Tyler Hicks, photographer for the New York Times, found what seems to be a photo album from the Gaddafi family.

Watch the album on the NYTimes Lens Blog Website

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Internet has returned in many areas in Tripoli.

@ feb17voices : LPC #Tripoli: Internet has returned in many areas of the city. #Libya

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CNN correspondent in Libya Nic Robertson reports the Lockerbie bomber, Abdel Basset al Megrahi, is comatose and nearing death.

Read Robertson's full report on the CNN website.

The National Transitional Council announced earlier it will not extradite the Libyan.

CNN's report contradicts statements made earlier by a cancer specialist, who said Abdel Basset al Megrahi was in good health and could live for years.

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Libya's National Transitional Council will not extradite the Lockerbie bomber

@ Reuters : Minister in National Transitional Council says Libya will not extradite Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi

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An Iranian newspaper wrote on Sunday that foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi claimed Iran "discreetly" provided humanitarian aid to rebels in Libya.

According to AFP the minister told the newspaper that Iran was "in touch with many of the rebel groups in Libya before the fall of (Moamer) Gaddafi, and discreetly dispatched three or four food and medical consignments to Benghazi."

The minister also said the head of the NTC sent a letter to Teheran, thanking Iranian president Ahmedinejad for his help.

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AFP reports Libyan rebels have freed more than 10,000 prisoners since they captured Tripoli. 50,000 prisoners would still be missing.

Ahmed Omar Bani, a spokesperson for the rebels, told reporters during a press conference that between 57,000 and 60,000 people have been arrested over the past months.

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Libyan rebels declined an offer by Muammar Gaddafi to negotiate, saying they do not recognize him and are looking for Gaddafi as a criminal.

On Saturday, a spokesman for Gaddafi had offered the rebels by phone to start talks lead by Gaddafi's son Saadi.

Mahmoud Shamman, the NTC's information minister said in a news conference:

"I would like to state very clearly, we don't recognize them. We are looking at them as criminals. We are going to arrest them very soon .. Talking about negotiations is a daydream for what remains of the dictatorship."

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Al Jazeera English has more on the latest overtures from the Gaddafi camp:

Moussa Ibrahim, the spokesperson for Muammar Gaddafi, has reportedly told the Associated Press news agency that the Libyan leader is ready to negotiate with the rebels to form a transitional government.

Ibrahim called AP headquarters in New York late on Saturday, and told them he was calling from Tripoli, the Libyan capital, and that Gaddafi was still in Libya.

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