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US, Libya Discuss Exchange of Diplomats - 2004-02-06

Senior U.S. and Libyan officials held talks in London Friday, and discussed the possibility of an exchange of diplomats and the lifting of the long-standing ban on the use of U.S. passports for travel to the North African country. The political talks, the first in many years, follow Libya's decision in December to scrap its weapons of mass destruction programs with U.S. and British help.

There were no immediate actions announced after the closed-door meeting in London, chaired on the U.S. side by Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs William Burns.

But a U.S. statement called the discussion "very positive and thorough," and it made clear that the Bush administration is ready to take a number of steps toward better relations, provided that Libya continues to follow through on its disarmament pledge and other commitments.

The statement said the two sides discussed the possibility "in the near term" of an end to a two-decade-old ban on the use of U.S. passports for travel to Libya, and the lifting of a companion sanction to allow Americans to engage in travel-related transactions for Libyan visits.

It said they discussed a variety of exchanges by medical, educational and economic teams. To support such activity, along with continued U.S. disarmament aid, it said they discussed the assignment of "a small number" of diplomatic personnel in their respective capitals, given the absence of functioning embassies.

Such a move would create the first U.S. diplomatic presence in Libya since 1980, when the American mission in Tripoli closed down in the face of a mob attack by Libyan supporters of the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran the year before.

The Libyan government of Moammar Gadhafi has been seeking in recent years to end its international isolation, accepting responsibility last August for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Scotland and agreeing to compensate victims families.

In a move that capped months of secret contacts with the United States and Britain, Libya announced December 19 it was renouncing weapons of mass destruction.

It invited teams from those two countries and the International Atomic Energy Agency last month to take part in the dismantling process, which included an airlift to the United States of tons of hardware including uranium-enrichment centrifuge parts and missile guidance packages.

The U.S. statement on the London talks reiterated President Bush's December comment that Libyan good faith on disarmament and other issues of concern will be reciprocated.

It said while there have been positive developments, the two sides acknowledge there remain many issues that must be addressed, if a more normal relationship is to be reestablished.

It added the United States will continue to approach the matter on a "careful step-by-step basis" with progress on relations dependent on continued good faith implementation by Libya of commitments on weapons and terrorism.

Even though U.S. officials say Libyan connections with terrorist groups amount only to "residual" contacts, the country remains on the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism.

They say its removal from the list and the lifting of related economic sanctions would be a lengthy process requiring coordination with Congress.

The U.S. passport ban, however, comes up for State Department review later this month and could be lifted by executive order.