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Rice Schedules First Libya Visit by US Secretary of State in 55 Years

The U.S. State Department says Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will visit Libya later this week, the first visit of its kind since 1953. Rice will be in Libya on Friday as part of a broader trip to North Africa and Portugal. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

The Rice visit and planned meeting with Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi will climax a process of rapprochement that began in 2003, when Libya accepted responsibility for acts of terrorism and agreed to scrap its weapons of mass destruction and missile programs.

U.S.-Libyan bilateral relations, which were broken off in 1972, have been rebuilt step-by-step. The final hurdle to Rice's visit was cleared last month when the two sides agreed on a financing mechanism to clear away remaining claims from terrorism cases, notably the 1988 bombing of a U.S. Pan Am jetliner over Scotland that killed 270 people.

Announcing Rice's travel plans, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack called the impending visit to Tripoli historic and said it signifies a new chapter in a relationship.

McCormack said Rice will go to the meetings in Libya with what he termed a "healthy sense of history" about Libya's terrorist past, but he said she is not a captive to that history and that restoring a normal relationship has bipartisan support in Washington.

In a talk with reporters, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch, a key go-between with Libya in recent years, said Rice looks forward "with great interest" to meeting a Libyan leader once characterized by former President Ronald Reagan as "the mad-dog of the Middle East."

"We don't refer to Colonel Gadhafi in those terms today. This is a relationship that has had a troubled past. But now, it is on a much firmer foundation. He, as leader, has undertaken certain decisions which have really changed things. It's important to recognize that. Those are very much in America's national interests. I would argue also in Libya's national interests," he said.

Welch said one aim of the Rice mission is to "reach out and try to encourage" Libyans interested in further economic and political reforms.

He said the Secretary of State intends to discuss human rights with Libyan officials, but he would not say whether she would raise the specific case of leading Gadhafi critic Fahti al-Jahmi, who has been jailed since 2004 after calling for elections and a free press.

The al-Jahmi case has been championed by the New York-based monitoring group Human Rights Watch. Its deputy director for the Middle East, Joe Stork, says Rice should serve notice on Libya that there can be no further improvement in relations without satisfactory resolution of the al-Jahmi case, among others.

"There are a number of very courageous political dissidents who have been imprisoned, sentenced to long prison terms, or else detained without even the courtesy of a prison term, simply for speaking out publicly, critically, about the government. We know about people who have simply been 'disappeared,' people who have been unaccounted for since they were arrested many months, even years ago. These should be definitely at the top of her list," he said.

Rice will begin the four-day trip in Lisbon for talks with Portuguese leaders before going on to Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.

Welch said he expects human rights to be discussed at each North African stop, along with counter-terrorism efforts and regional issues, including the recent military coup in Mauritania, the status of Western Sahara and Darfur.

The last U.S. Secretary of State to visit Libya was John Foster Dulles of the Dwight Eisenhower administration, who went there in 1953. Then-Vice President Richard Nixon also paid a visit, four years later.