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Libyan Foreign Minister Visits US State Department

Libyan Foreign Minister Abdel-Rahman Shalgam met Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other officials Thursday in a meeting underlining an improving bilateral relationship. The U.S. side raised human rights cases and lingering compensation issues stemming from Libya's past involvement in terrorism. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

Rice has met her Libyan counterpart twice before on the sidelines of U.N. meetings in New York. But the State Department visit by Shalgam was the first by a Libyan foreign minister in 36 years, and reflected a relationship that has improved markedly since Libya renounced weapons of mass destruction and accepted responsibility for acts of terrorism.

The Libyan minister spent about an hour with Rice and had separate meetings with Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicolas Burns and Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch.

There was no press event with Rice and Shalgam. A written statement from State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said in each of the meetings, the U.S. side underlined the importance of resolving outstanding terrorism-related claims against the Libyan government while expressing concern about Libya's human rights record.

Libya in 2003 accepted responsibility for the 1988 bombing of a U.S. Pan Am jumbo jet over Scotland that killed 270 people, and agreed to pay $10 million compensation to families of each victim.

However Libya has withheld a final $2 million per-family payment in a technical dispute, drawing Congressional criticism and prompting Rice to put off a visit to Libya that had been planned for last autumn to complete the diplomatic normalization process begun in 2004.

In a talk with reporters, McCormack said Rice still intends to go to Libya but that the timing depends on Libyan actions.

"She'll go when she thinks the timing is right," he said. "I'm not going to tie her hands in terms of setting out specific conditions. She'll make a judgment based on where we stand in terms of the changing relationship and she'll decide when the timing is right to go to Libya. She does intend to. She looks forward to going there."

Libya's international political rehabilitation since 2003 was capped this week when it officially joined the U.N. Security Council and became its rotating chairman for January. Officials here say Shalgam discussed Security Council, North African and Middle East issues with the State Department team.

Speaking here at a signing ceremony for a U.S.-Libyan science and technology agreement, Shalgam said Libya - once shunned by Washington as a pariah state - can cooperate with the United States to combat terrorism and help bring peace in regional trouble spots such as Sudan's Darfur region which borders Libya.

"I think we can do, together, something for peace, especially regarding the issue of Darfur," said Abdel-Rahman Shalgam. "Also, this phenomenon of terrorism in our region and other regions of the world, we can do something. Also to help stability and development, especially in Africa and the Mediterranean region."

In advance of the Rice-Shalgam meeting, human rights groups appealed to the State Department to press the issue with the Libyans.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch credited the Muammar Gadhafi government with some improvements in recent years but said that there are still serious abuses including the continued jailing of political prisoners, torture of detainees and the absence of a free press.

Both Human Rights Watch and the Boston-based Physicians for Human Rights cited the case of Fathi al-Jahmi, a prominent Libyan dissident jailed and put on trial in 2005 for giving interviews critical of Mr. Gadhafi.

Human Rights Watch said no access to Mr. al-Jahmi has been allowed since August 2006 and his family does not know if he is alive or dead.

The U.S. statement said Assistant Secretary Welch raised the al-Jahmi case with Shalgam, and that Rice said human rights is an important agenda item with Libya along with resolving the outstanding terrorism claims.

Key members of Congress are blocking funds for a new U.S. embassy in Tripoli, and also barring confirmation of a full-fledged U.S. ambassador to Libya, until the compensation issues are settled. Spokesman McCormack said he is sure Foreign Minister Shalgam is aware of that situation.