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French President Visits Libya

French President iJacque Chirac is in Libya for the first visit by a French head of state since the North African country achieved independence, in 1951. Mr. Chirac's groundbreaking trip also marks a turning point in long-contentious French-Libyan relations.

President Chirac's 24-hour visit to Tripoli, to meet with Libya's Moammar Gadhafi, follows similar trips in recent months by British, Italian, and German leaders. The new relationship between Europe and the North African country follows Libya's rejection of terrorism and its decision to give up its weapons of mass destruction.

In January, Tripoli also signed an agreement to pay about $170 million to families of victims of a 1989 terrorist attack against a DC-10 jet over the Sahara desert, which killed all 170 people on board. The French government accused Libya of masterminding the attack.

The Elysee presidential palace in Paris has described Mr. Chirac's trip as opening a new chapter in French-Libyan relations. Terrorism analyst Jean-Francois Daguzan, of the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris, notes there are many reasons why France should be interested in improving its ties with Tripoli.

Besides Libya's vast oil reserves, Mr. Daguzan notes the country offers a huge trade and investment potential, particularly since Libya recently launched economic reforms.

Tripoli could also be an important partner in the fight against terrorism, and in curbing illegal immigration from sub-Saharan African countries. The European Union also wants Libya to participate actively in a Euro-Mediterranean dialogue, although Mr. Gadhafi remains hesitant about doing so.

And Mr. Daguzan notes that Libya might be helpful in curbing African conflicts. That includes the turmoil in Ivory Coast, where Tripoli was rumored to have supported the northern-based rebels.

In an interview published in Le Figaro newspaper, Mr. Gadhafi called for a resolution to the Ivorian conflict, but he also criticized the presence of French peacekeeping forces in Ivory Coast.

French-Libyan relations have been tense for decades. The two countries clashed in Chad, after Tripoli invaded the African country in the late 1970s. And for years, Libya was a training ground for many terrorists.

Today critics of Libya, like Francois Rudetzki, hope France will not forget Tripoli's checkered past, as it seeks new relations with the country. Ms. Rudetzki is head of SOS Attentats, a Paris-based group representing the families of victims of the 1989 airliner attack.

She notes that a Paris court convicted half a dozen top Libyan officials in absentia in relation to the terrorist strike, including Mr. Gadhafis brother-in-law. She hopes Mr. Chirac will remind the Libyan leader of this, and that French justice has not yet been served.